Maine economy will suffer unless we attract more people

In a now-deleted Facebook video first covered by the Bangor Daily News last week, Gov. Paul LePage said a number of controversial things.

The item that gained the most attention was remarks that he intended to call on Attorney General Janet Mills to resign. A prediction that came true on Tuesday.

But the video contained a lot more news, including the governor warning that state revenues could be headed for trouble at the end of summer, based on the impact of fewer tourists, a tight labor market and President Donald Trump’s tariffs and ongoing trade wars with the rest of the world.

“I’m a little concerned about the economy,” LePage said in the video. “If I sound a little pessimistic, it’s I’ve been seeing the numbers, and I’m telling you it’s not looking good. Red ink is starting to show up.”

But the governor, completely out of character, also talked about a problem that Democrats, Republicans and independence all can agree upon: the need to attract more young people to the state.

Gov. Paul LePage (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The governor, who I rarely agree with on either substance or style, spoke passionately and accurately about the need for Maine to attract new people – particularly young people – to the state.

While his remarks also continued his misguided love affair with New Hampshire, and his basic misunderstanding of that state’s economic success, he also talked about the need to make the state more attractive to people who might move here and the need to address the high cost of higher education.

I’ll paraphrase what the governor said. Without access to education, the governor said, it’s likely he would have found himself a guest of the state, meaning that he’d have ended up in jail or prison.

It was a thoughtful, personal story about the power of education to lift people up.

While I would argue that the governor’s policies and the way he has conducted himself in office have had the opposite effect of making education more accessible and attracting more people to the state, I also believe that the first step in progress is agreeing on the problem.

On the problem, and I am giving the governor credit for being sincere in a speech hidden from the prying eyes of the media and in front of a safe audience, we agree.

In a report released from the Maine Department of Labor last week, Maine is projected to create fewer than 100 net jobs between 2016 and 2026.

The report is predicting that the state’s economy will be essentially stagnant and that our workforce will age considerably, with more and more jobs filled by people 65 years of age and older.

One of the persistent myths of Maine is that young people are leaving the state. Some are, for sure. But the real story is worse. Deaths are outnumbering births. A number of hospitals in more rural areas have gone so far as to stop delivering babies.

If everyone born here stayed here, we would not sustain our population – or our economy.

The only thing holding our population steady is in-migration.

If we want our economy to grow and if we want to create more jobs, it all starts with more people. Our current path is unsustainable. Population growth and job creation stuck in neutral are real problems.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

James Myall, a policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, told the Portland Press Herald that the reports projections aren’t written in stone. Smart policies can change the outcome.

“These aren’t necessarily inevitable trends,” Myall told the Press Herald. “This is something that we as Mainers can do something about.”

Maine has a number of advantages for attracting new people. We have plenty of space, access to amazing outdoor recreation and good colleges.

But we don’t do a good job of selling ourselves, starting with the governor who never seems to miss an opportunity to talk down about the state. We need to tell our story.

Additionally, we need to demonstrate that we are an open, welcoming place to live. The next wave of migration into the state will be more diverse than the current population, which is among the whitest in the country. If we want people to come, they need to know that they will be treated fairly and made to feel welcome.

We should recognize our place, particularly in southern Maine, as a gateway to cities like Boston and New York, and work to make housing attractive for people who can commute south.

Finally, we can adopt forward-thinking policies – such as access to universal pre-K and expanded access to high quality, affordable early childhood education and reducing the cost of higher education – which, when combined with our safe communities, long coastline and amazing mountains and relatively affordable housing, will make Maine attractive to young families.

There’s more we can do. This list isn’t the end. But it is a start. Labor projections aren’t fate. But they can end up that way if we bury our heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge we need people, more people.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at