By Kevin Miller, PressHerald.com As a leader in Maine’s growing Congolese community, Papy Bongibo said…
MADISON, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday unveiled a plan for addressing the impact of the pandemic and bolstering Maine’s economy in the long term with the $1.13 billion in aid the state will receive under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Mills introduced the plan at a news conference at GO Lab, a wood-fiber insulation maker on the site of a former paper mill in Madison.
“This federal funding represents an unprecedented opportunity to address the longstanding challenges that have constrained our state’s ability to thrive over the years,” Mills said. “By encouraging innovative small-business growth, investing in our workforce, and building essential infrastructure, like housing, child care and broadband, we can accelerate our recovery from the pandemic and build a stronger, more prosperous Maine.”
Among those joining Mills Tuesday were Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson; the co-chairs of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee, Laurie Lachance and Josh Broder; Maine AFL-CIO Executive Director Matt Schlobohm; and Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Quincy Hentzel.
In total, the American Rescue Plan Act will send about $4.5 billion to Maine. Congress committed nearly $3.2 billion of the funds directly to various recovery efforts, including support for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus payments to families, and funds for businesses, counties and municipalities, education, behavioral health, child care, and more.
The remaining $1.13 billion was allocated to state government to respond to the pandemic and support economic recovery. Mills’ plan details how she intends to use those funds.
A key priority for Mills, as well as for state and federal lawmakers, is expanding access to high-speed internet. Her plan devotes $150 million of the federal funds toward that effort. Mills said she has heard from lawmakers and the public again and again that Maine needs better and more broadband connectivity.
“We will do it. We will do it,” she said during a short speech outside the former paper mill.
Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of Great Works Internet, said the $150 million reserved for the Maine Connectivity Authority will be “transformative” for the state.
Years ago, when dial-up was king, Maine was recognized as having some of the best internet connectivity in the country, he said, and with this federal funding, plus some private investment, Maine may be able to “move the needle” back to the top.
“I can see it’s conceivable that we’ll have fiber connectivity almost everywhere (in Maine) in five years and again be one of the best in the nation,” Kittredge said in a phone interview. “It’s really good for a rural state to have that,” he added, especially one within a few hours of Boston and New York City.
“With so many jobs, so many industries now reliant on the internet, you can’t participate fully in civil society without (a reliable connection) anymore,” he said.
Beyond broadband expansion, the plan lays out funding for helping companies recover from financial losses with $80 million in grants or guaranteed loans. The plan puts another $39 million toward helping Maine’s small businesses lower health insurance costs for workers.
Health insurance costs have been “one of the top issues for small-business owners for decades,” David Clough, the Maine state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a phone interview. There’s no “one and done magic solution” to fix it, but the $39 million allocation is, at the very least, he said, a “good starting point.”
Clough is awaiting more information on how the program will work and what sort of tangible difference it will make for small business owners, but he commended Mills for her “efforts to help small businesses to cope with the rising cost of health insurance.”
The plan also allocates funding for expanding child care programs and pumps $105 million into career and technical education programs, which are critical for developing the state’s workforce.
David Dorr, the director of the nearby Somerset Career and Technical Center in Skowhegan, said low-income students who enroll in career and technical programs have a 95 percent high school graduation rate, compared to 75 percent for those enrolled in strictly academic programs.
Dorr said the federal funding that will come to career technical centers across Maine under Mills’ plan will be transformative in providing space and equipment that will allow more students to gain the career technical skills needed for the state’s changing economy.
“This money the governor is announcing today for the Maine Jobs Recovery Plan will allow schools like mine the ability to buy the equipment needed to continue to give all students the opportunity to learn a skill, to fill a desperate need and to earn a comfortable living, while strengthening Maine’s economy,” Dorr said.
The roughly $179 million to attract and expand Maine’s workforce is a “once in a generation opportunity,” said Nate Wildes, executive director of Live + Work in Maine.
“We have the opportunity to redefine what it means to be living and working in Maine and leverage that for continued economic growth and success into the future,” he said in a phone interview.
Maine’s need to diversify its population in age, ethnicity and skill sets, among other categories, has been present for years, he noted, and with $8 million reserved to advance equity and inclusion in the workforce, the “opportunity to solve those challenges has never been greater.”
The plan directs another $83 million to address the state’s transportation needs, including sending $50 million to the state’s capital work plan for roads and bridges. That allotment also includes another $8 million for electric vehicle charging stations and $20 million to protect transportation infrastructure from climate change.
Additional reaction to Mills’ plan came swiftly Tuesday from many sectors, including the state’s largest union organization, the Maine AFL-CIO, which represents some 40,000 Maine workers.
“Good jobs don’t just fall from the sky,” said Schlobohm, the Maine AFL-CIO executive director. “We applaud the proposed investments in apprenticeship and worker training, housing, childcare, broadband, fixing our state parks and rebuilding Maine’s infrastructure.”
Business leaders also praised the plan.
“Using these documents as our road map, the Maine State Chamber supports the governor’s proposal for use of the American Recovery Act funds, because they represent short-term investments that will result in long-term gains to Maine employers and their employees,” said Dana Connors, president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Mills said the plan rolled out Tuesday is based on a 10-year state economic development strategy that was in the works but lacked the kind of dramatic funding the American Recovery Plan Act will pump into it.
“Today, at the site of a former mill that is transforming to meet the challenges of our time, I am proud to say that we finally have the tools we need to build our bridge to a brighter future,” Mills said.
The biggest chunk of the plan, $547 million, will be directed toward rebuilding “essential physical, communications and human infrastructure,” Mills noted.
She said parts of the plan would involve close collaboration with the Maine Legislature and some parts would supplant the need for the state to borrow or bond for infrastructure. Proposals for a variety of bonding bills are currently before the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
Which proposals would be supplanted with federal funds remained unclear, but Mills said she intends to fully engage the Legislature in the process, although details were not clear yet.
Other key highlights of the plan include $50 million for Maine state parks, $20 million to bolster fish and wildlife infrastructure, and $16 million to improve fishing industry infrastructure and monitoring.
Others reacting to the enormous economic recovery package included local and statewide leaders in municipal government.
“Investment in roads, bridges and broadband will help Maine communities grow and prosper,” said Biddeford City Manager James Bennett, vice president of the Maine Municipal Association. “Investments in wastewater and drinking water programs and climate adaptation support our efforts to protect the natural resources that make Maine a vacation destination and support our heritage businesses.”
Maine’s largest cities also are receiving direct federal funds to aid them in pandemic recovery, while smaller cities and towns will receive portions of the $4.5 billion in total relief as grants passed down by state government.
Although the plan includes investments in affordable housing, and energy efficiency for low-income and older Mainers, it does not provide direct property tax relief for municipalities or homeowners at a time of escalating real estate prices.
SOURCE: Portland Press Herald