Maine’s economy is broken.
Even as it continues to recover from the deepest recession in a generation, the fundamental problems that plague our state’s economy have yet to be addressed. In recent years, our industrial base has collapsed as mills and large manufacturers have closed, leaving gaping absences in their wake. Unfortunately, rather than be replaced by more industry, that sector has simply fled the state (and frequently the country).
This has left Maine in the position where precious few of its large employers are independent and locally-based. According to the state Department of Labor [PDF], our of our 10 largest employers are hospitals and another five are based out of state or owned by companies based elsewhere. L.L. Bean is the only private company headquartered in Maine in the top 10.
Looking farther down the list of the state’s 50 largest employers, one sees many more hospitals, universities, and other non-profits than private companies. Furthermore, by the DoL’s measurements, almost all of the private companies on the list are privately held rather than publicly traded.
As a state, we face plenty of disadvantages when it comes to attracting jobs and economic development. Some of these we can’t change, like our climate, location, and natural resources. We can’t make the winters any less harsh or move the state closer to Boston or New York. That will always leave us with one hand tied behind our back economically.
What we can do is remove the self-made limitations so we have at least one economic hand untied. This includes our high taxes, health care and energy costs. It includes regulations written without regard to the potential impact on the economy. These are the problems that the new Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage can work to overcome.
One of the ways they can help our economic environment is by passing a statewide right-to-work law, in one form or another. This is an idea whose time has come for our state and one that Maine Republicans ought to continue to aggressively pursue for the foreseeable future.
For those unclear on the term — which admittedly is a bit of a misnomer, like most such labels — right to work (RTW) laws affect the relationship between organized labor and management. Generally speaking, these laws forbid agreements that force employees to join a union or to pay union dues.
The Northeast has avoided right to work. Passing it here — even in a form less comprehensive than elsewhere — would leave Maine uniquely positioned in the region. Just as New Hampshire enjoys an advantage because of its lack of sales and income taxes, Maine would if it became the only right to work state in New England.
Though the unions will fight it bitterly, it would not deprive them of their ability to organize, to go on strike, or to negotiate over salary and benefits. Instead, RTW simply makes the question of whether to join the union a truly individual one.
This isn’t to say that passing RTW would magically transform the state’s economy overnight. However, it would be an effective component of an overall approach.
As the state’s industry has declined, Maine has failed to change and adapt to bring in new large employers. This has left us economically stagnant. This can only be reversed if we are willing to pursue aggressive reforms that truly do open Maine for business, rather than duck the difficult fights out of political expediency.