Leadership Summit reaffirms Maine is moving forward despite challenges of the pandemic
For the past 23 years, the Maine State Chamber’s annual Leadership Summit has provided board members and business leaders an opportunity to discuss critical public policy issues with key public officials from both sides of the aisle, as well as with administrators and representatives of the executive branch. After a virtual Summit last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chamber’s board of directors and key business leaders once again gathered in-person with legislative leaders and members of the Mills administration on Thursday and Friday, February 3 and 4, at Sunday River with the shared goal of finding ways to attract and build talent, foster innovation, and develop the critical support tools necessary to achieve the goals laid out in Governor Janet Mills’ 10-year Economic Development Strategy for Maine.
Speaker Fecteau emphasized the need for access to quality child care and develop Maine’s early childhood education workforce. His priority legislation is LD 1652, An Act to Build a Child Care System by Recruiting and Retaining Maine's Early Childhood Educators Workforce, which was carried over to this session. The bill is designed to build, recruit, and train early childhood educators working with children up to 5 years of age. The Speaker also cited the importance of affordable housing and the lack of it as a reason for our workforce shortages. “It is hard for people to hold or look for a job when they do not have a place to call home and are living on couches, in vehicles, or under the stars,” said Fecteau.
Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake cited a need to a return to the previous definition of an “emergency” Second Session, indicating the length of the session, the sheer volume of new and carry-over bills – combined with increased partisanship – is making the institution less effective. Timberlake said a concern for his caucus was additional funding for both elder care and nursing homes, particularly when the elder population in our state is increasing at a faster rate than that of younger people moving here. His final point was one many businesses in the room could relate to – that government intervention, changing regulations, and uncertainty makes running a business nearly impossible.
As Senate Chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, Sen. Mark Lawrence and his committee have been at the center of several of the highest visibility public policy discussions of the 130th Legislature. Lawrence noted that many things had changed since the late 1990s when it came to energy policy and delivery in Maine. The recent referendum and attention brought about by the issue has resulted in the new bill submitted by Governor Mills regarding utility reliability. In his remarks, Lawrence suggested that, as we make the transition to renewable energy and our tools, vehicles, and other machines draw energy from the power grid rather than fossil fuels, we will need a stronger, more reliable, and better run utility than we currently have.
Finally, the highly-regarded Republican lead on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs committee, Rep. Sawin Millett, discussed the upcoming supplemental budget process and the kinds of decisions that legislators will have to make given the size of the budget surplus. Millett said that it might surprise people to know that having a surplus of funds often makes decision-making harder, rather than easier. Millett said finding places to cut is typically easier and more logical than decisions about what programs need and should receive additional funding. Millett indicated that it will be difficult to be sure what the Appropriations committee will do with the $822 million surplus, but there will likely be more direction after the State of the State address (see page 1) and budget proposal are released in the coming weeks.
Friday morning began with a virtual address by Governor Mills. The governor began her speech by reminding attendees that, despite the gloomy predictions of last year, Maine had in fact recovered from the damage of the pandemic in a robust manner. Maine’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 4.2% above the third quarter of 2019, and its population growth was second highest in New England. The state’s tourism season recovered from 2020 with a banner year. Mills spent time discussing an issue that is on the mind of nearly every employer operating in Maine – our workforce shortage. Despite only 5,000 Mainers currently receiving unemployment insurance benefits, there remains a critical shortage of workers for a variety of reasons. Reading headlines from 2017 and 2018, Mills pointed out that our workforce problems aren’t new. “Our labor shortage is one I inherited, but not one I’ll leave to my grandchildren to resolve,” said Mills.
Mills indicated one way to resolve it is moving ahead with the 10-year Strategic Economic Development Plan her administration put together with the help of many of the Maine State Chamber members who were attending the Leadership Summit. That plan is specifically developed to emphasize innovation and attract talent. “Our strategic economic development plan’s goal is to attract new workers to our state, said Mills. “It’s the foundation to a path out of the pandemic.”
Mills said that, using the strategic plan, she intends to focus on affordable housing, transportation infrastructure, reliable internet, and affordable, accessible child care in the remaining months of this session. All things that will help put people back to work and continue our economic recovery.
The summit then heard brief presentations from David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, and Phil Bartlett, chair of the Public Utilities Commission. Daigler discussed the enrollment challenges the community college had faced, and its renewed focus to create its curriculum based upon an employer-driven needs model. Bartlett indicated that, while Maine was in a position of a major energy transition period toward renewables and carbon neutrality that will rely on wind, solar, offshore wind, and hydro power, there were opportunities for our state as well.
Following those presentations, the event’s long-standing tradition of roundtable sessions continued in-person on Friday morning in the form of three plenary sessions. The three sessions were convened to focus the intersection of the state’s strategic plan, lessons of the pandemic, and policy issues of the 130th legislative session. Each of the 45-minute sessions resulted in thoughtful and meaningful dialogue between business leaders and policymakers that hopefully will help shape the discussions in the Statehouse this session and beyond, as the public and private sectors partner to place Maine in the best possible position as we work through the effects of the pandemic.
Breakout Session: The State’s Strategic Plan…
Facilitated by board chair Clif Greim of Frosty Hill Consulting and Peter Gore of the Maine State Chamber, the first session began with an update from the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), Heather Johnson. Commissioner Johnson indicated that, while the strategic plan was on track with two of the 10 years were already behind us, there is more work to do and more goals to accomplish in the next eight years, pandemic or not. She indicated that the University of Maine had achieved the significant distinction of being named a R1 designation in research and development, the world standard for research universities. The group then heard form a variety of attendees on ways they were working within their own companies to achieve the plan’s goals, with an emphasis on attracting new workers to Maine.
Breakout Session: Issues of Covid…
Facilitated by board member Mark St.Germain of St.Germain and Ben Lucas of the Maine State Chamber, the focus of this breakout session was to highlight the impacts COVID-19 has had on businesses in Maine, both negative and positive. At a high level, the main themes were that the pandemic has brought to light major issues around workforce, affordable housing, child care, supply chain issues, and inflation. On the other side, Maine has had major investments from the federal government, which has led to some positives, such as broadband expansion, relocation of people into Maine, new businesses, and countless stories of companies having to adapt and innovate. St.Germain initiated the conversation between businesses and legislators by asking how businesses have had to adapt to the challenges brought forward by the pandemic.
Dan Emerson from Casella started off the discussion noting that Casella is an essential business, “so we had to be innovative. People couldn’t come into the office, so we had to find ways to still get them their routes for the day and make adaptions to the technology they have. Covid has driven automation of the industry.” Emerson also noted that transportation has been an issue, getting people who relied on carpooling to work every day.
LuAnn Ballesteros from The Jackson Laboratory (Jax) echoed his concerns. She also noted that, “Housing and child care are two major issues to their workforce. Since the pandemic began, Jax has been doing all COVID-19 testing and has been innovative in its approach.” Some discussion followed about how innovation takes time, and research and development funding need to be steady and consistent.
The remainder of this session focused on the need for quality child care, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Heather Johnson noted that we will need creative partnerships from the private and public sector to find solutions. Sen. Lisa Keim noted that there is a lot of regulation around child care, and we should find ways to limit regulation to encourage more investment and more people into the industry. And lastly, Ed Cervone of Thomas College shared his experience working on this issue in Denver, CO. Child care needs to have more options and better choices for parents. The Denver model delivers choice and quality through a fractional sales tax that is set aside for helping parents afford child care. Targeted funds are based on financial need as well as provider quality. There needs to be financial rewards for providers that make improvements to quality and credentialing / education of their workforce.
Breakout Session: Issues of the 130th Legislative Session…
Facilitated by board first vice chair LuAnn Ballesteros of The Jackson Laboratory and Linda Caprara of the Maine State Chamber, the discussion in the third breakout session focused on the legislative session and its process. Discussion focused primarily on how committees are presently dealing with bills internally and how the process has morphed into one that is not conducive to input by interested parties. Committees are reporting out bills in which the titles and language have been changed substantively so bills take on new forms without the benefit of a new public hearing. In addition, and perhaps more egregious, committees are reporting out legislation with new amendments that are being offered at the work sessions – often with no previously-released text so interested parties have no opportunity to review amendments and provide appropriate comment. Because these sessions are virtual now, there is no opportunity to enter work sessions live, unless invited to participate. In the past when sponsors or other had amendments at the physical work session, additional work sessions were scheduled to allow interested parties, in addition to committee members, time to review the amendments and provide comment.
Caprara provided concrete examples of legislation in which these issues have arisen – notably with LD 607 (overtime standard), LD 225 (vacation pay issue), and LD 1429 (carbon neutrality). With respect to these bills in committee, amendments were offered the same day with no opportunity for our Advocacy team to weigh in on the serious impacts these costly bills could have on Maines’s business community.
The other issues centered around the notion of “concept drafts” and how these “one sentence” bills are being allowed to progress, again with no knowledge of what the sponsor will or will not introduce for actual legislation.
Former House Speaker Michael Saxl of Verrill Dana / Maine Street Solutions offered comments on this issue and suggested that perhaps the Legislature’s Joint Rules could be amended to require that any new amendments be released 24-hours prior to any work sessions.
We would like to thank the legislative leaders, administrators, and our board members who took the time and braved the weather to travel to Sunday River for our 23rd annual Leadership Summit and participated in the event. The success of the 2022 Leadership Summit is centered on your highly-engaged participation and willingness to engage in a constructive and frank dialogue. Without you, this event would not be the success it is each year.
We would also like to extend our sincere gratitude to the generous sponsors of this flagship event: Thursday’s Exclusive Principal sponsor, Pierce Atwood; Friday’s Exclusive Principal sponsor, Verrill / Maine Street Solutions; the Welcome Reception sponsor, Charter Communication; the Registration sponsor, Versant Power; the Snack and Coffee Station sponsor, The Jackson Laboratory; Friday’s Lunch sponsor, Preti Flaherty; and these Supporting sponsors - AmeriHealth Caritas; AT&T; Bangor Savings Bank; Brookfield Renewable Energy; Casella Waste Systems; Central Maine Power Company; Consolidated Communications, Inc.; Cross Insurance; Eaton Peabody; Hannaford Supermarkets; Kennebec Savings Bank; IDEXX Laboratories, Inc.; Maine Credit Union League; Maine DECD; MaineHealth; MEMIC; Poland Spring Water Company; Rudman Winchell; Serlin Haley, LLP; Summit Natural Gas of Maine, Inc.; Until; University of New England; Unum; VHB; and, Woodard & Curran Inc.
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