In virtual format, 2021 Leadership Summit builds connections and fosters understanding between business and legislative leaders
For more than 20 years, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce convenes a meeting of its board members and key legislative leaders each February for a two-day Leadership Summit at Sunday River. During this time, attendees discuss their top public policy priorities and needed strategic investments with a focus on improving Maine’s economic climate. This year, although the 2021 Leadership Summit was held virtually due to the pandemic, the event’s purpose and focus remained squarely the same.
The event’s recordings and photo album are available online.
“While the Summit looks very different this year, I am continually aware that this kind of event and these kinds of conversations are very unique to Maine,” observed board chair Clif Greim of Frosty Hill Consulting. “It is our duty to use this opportunity to benefit the state, our organizations, and our people in the best way possible.”
The first day’s panels explored the State of Maine’s 10-year strategic plan, the recent recommendations of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee (ERC), and the Maine Economic Growth Council’s 2020 Measures of Growth report. Panelists for the first session were Commissioner Heather Johnson of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development; Laurie Lachance, president of Thomas College and co-chair of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee; and, Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation. This session was moderated by board chair Clif Greim of Frosty Hill Consulting, and the questions were fielded by Ben Gilman, general counsel for the Maine State Chamber.
“We very quickly learned that we were in such a free fall that nobody could focus on the long term until we addressed the near-term needs and urgency,” Lachance said of the ERC’s work. “We had to survive before we could thrive.” She continued, “In my lived experience, I’ve grown to believe and understand that in a knowledge-based, technology-driven economy the single greatest investment we can make in the future of this state is to invest in our people, bringing each and every one to their greatest potential. For that to happen, they have to be healthy, educated, skilled, connected, accepted and included, minimally.”
After outlining the existing plans and assessments, the second panel provided an overview of the state’s biennial budget with a focus on how it moves our state forward and grows our economy based on the funding of priorities. In a panel moderated by Dana Connors, Maine State Chamber president, attendees were fortunate to hear directly from Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland), chair of the legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs committee, and Rep. Sawin Millett (R-Waterford), the ranking Republican member of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs committee and an architect of past state budgets in his former role as DAFS commissioner. Following their discussions, Linda Caprara, senior governmental relations specialist for the Maine State Chamber, posed questions from attendees.
“To the budget, in particular, I want to assure you that Maine State Government is on solid financial footing,” Sen. Breen said. “That’s not the case in every state. That’s also not the case in the wake of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has taken historic and unprecedented tolls on state revenues, and no federal assistance for state governments to help fill in revenue gaps.”
“The supplemental and biennial budget proposals will serve as a bridge from where we were before everything came tumbling down to the out-biennium of 2024-2025, which shapes my view of our role as a committee to one of visionary and not transitory,” noted Rep. Millett. “I’ve never felt that a budget should be a band-aid applied to difficult choices to get us through to the next election, but it ought to serve well to guide the people of Maine, with a service plan and an affordability check, that carries quality services into the next generation.”
To round out the first day, attendees heard from keynoter Greg Powell of the Harold Alfond Foundation, who shared the foundation’s long-standing commitment to providing opportunity for the people of Maine to thrive from birth through career.
“No doubt, the pandemic has exacerbated the state’s challenges,” Powell noted. “That said, the pandemic has also set the stage for opportunity, new growth and development in our state.” He went on to say, “Now, more than ever, is the time to work together to invest deeply and significantly in the future direction of our state. Now is the time to fund and encourage initiatives increase access to education, incentivize skilled workers to come and stay here, and reshape education for people of all ages to meet workforce needs of the modern, global economy. And all of this, to position Maine and its people for long-term economic success.”
In October 2020, approximately six months into the pandemic in Maine, the Harold Alfond Foundation announced more than $500 million of new grant investments in Maine people and institutions to help grow the state’s workforce and economy and support quality health care. Two of the grant recipients – each of which are innovators in education, skill-building, research, and job creation – are the University of Maine System (UMS) and the Maine Community College System (MCCS).
As the recipient of the largest of the Alfond Foundation’s grants awarded in October, UMS Chancellor Dannel Malloy joined us to discuss how those funds are being invested to strengthen the capacity of Maine’s public universities to meet the state’s most pressing higher education, workforce, and economic needs.
“Without the Harold Alfond Foundation’s investment in us, we would not be in the position to be making the kinds of investments in the future of Maine that we are prepared to make.” noted Chancellor Malloy. “But together, we can guarantee a brighter day, a more fulfilling day, and more employment in the state of Maine in the very near future.”
MCCS President David Daigler discussed the community colleges’ most recent $3.6 million investment from the Alfond Foundation. Through that grant, Maine’s community colleges have provided free short-term workforce training programs for 180 people to work in high-demand fields, expanding and strengthening short-term training for both incumbent workers and those seeking to enter the workforce. In addition, in only seven months, – more than 10,000 people in Maine have completed COVID-19 safety training from Maine’s community colleges, a program developed to assist Maine’s hospitality and tourism industry in preparing for a safe summer season in the midst of a pandemic.
“The investment by the Alfond Foundation has provided (the MCCS) the ability to broaden our short-term training efforts that work directly with businesses,” President Daigler said. “What we’re now building is a platform that gives advanced skills, technical skills, or even soft skills – ultimately building a portfolio that illustrates to trainees that they now have a short path to a degree. While we need to invest in the broad spectrum of our educational system, a person needs a skill that they can rely on in order to succeed in our economy.”
The second day of our Leadership Summit traditionally hosts roundtable break-out sessions. To replicate it for you, attendees heard about various legislative priorities from Governor Janet Mills, followed by a panel of legislative leaders and a panel of business leaders. Each session included time for questions from attendees, creating a robust dialog each day.
“At the onset of the pandemic, when protecting public health required certain restrictions on our economy, I sought advice from the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Eric Rosengren, and asked him ‘How can we stabilize Maine’s economy? I have to look forward to the end of this and make sure we rebound,’” Governor Mills told the group. “He said bluntly, ‘We have to get the virus under control if we are to have any hope of economic recovery. You can’t have a healthy economy without healthy people.’ That advice has been one that shaped our pandemic response – a response that I suggest, is working.” The governor went on to outline the key elements of the budget proposals, vaccination distribution plans, an update on the unemployment system, infrastructure needs, and future plans to implement the strategic plan and the ERC’s recommendations.
Following the governor, Commissioner Bruce Van Note of the Maine Department of Transportation introduced the department’s three-year workplan, which contains 2,000 work items, and the portion of the state budget that focuses on those tasks. “Our mission hasn’t changed,” Van Note said. “DOT supports economic prosperity and quality of life by responsibly providing the safest and most reliable transportation system possible, given available resources.” In the early days of the pandemic, the department was able to maximize the decrease in traffic to get many projects completed – faster and cheaper in some cases.
For more than 20 years, a key element of the annual Leadership Summit has been to hear directly from our legislative leadership. Joining the legislative leadership panel, moderated by LuAnn Ballesteros of The Jackson Laboratory, were Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook); Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford); Senate Republican Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin); and, House Republican Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham (R-Oxford). Following their presentations, Peter Gore, executive vice president of the Maine State Chamber, posed questions from attendees.
As a complement to the discussions with legislative leaders, the last panel provided a forum for reactions from business leaders. In response to questions from moderators Chris Condon of United Insurance and Mark Ellis of the Maine State Chamber, panelists offered their insights about how the issues discussed throughout the event might help of help or hinder the economic growth and investment Maine hopes to enjoy in the coming years. The four business leaders participating in this panel were David Barber of Tyson Foods; Doug McKeown of Woodard & Curran; Niki Morton of Casco Bay Food & Beverage; and, Brian Langley of Union River Lobster Pot.
Each of the above panelists discussed their public policy priorities for the legislative session, as well as their priority investments for positioning Maine well as we move through the pandemic.
The Maine State Chamber extends its gratitude to the generous sponsors of this flagship event: Thursday’s exclusive Principal sponsor, Verrill; Friday’s exclusive Principal sponsor, Pierce Atwood LLP; our Programming sponsor, Headlight Audio Visual, Inc.; and, our Break sponsors – Charter Communications, Eaton Peabody, and IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. Our Supporting sponsors are AmeriHealth Caritas; AT&T; Bangor Savings Bank; Bernstein Shur; Boston Brands; Casella Waste Systems, Inc.; Central Maine Power Company; Cross Insurance; Consolidated Communications, Inc.; Hannaford Supermarkets; Harvard Pilgrim Health Care; Kennebec Savings Bank; Maine Credit Union League; MaineHealth; Poland Spring Water Company; Spectrum Healthcare Partners; Summit Natural Gas of Maine, Inc.; The Jackson Laboratory; Unitil Corp.; Verizon; Versant Power; VHB; and, Unum.