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January 21, 2019

Setting a new course: 5 things businesses should pay attention to under Gov. Janet Mills

Photo / Jeff Kirlin
Photo / Jeff Kirlin
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, is Maine's first governor from Franklin County. The 71-year-old former state attorney general espouses a holistic approach to governing, speaking of “one Maine, undivided.”

"She's just a girl, and she's on fire," sung by two spirited girls at Gov. Janet Mills's inauguration and an instant viral hit, was a fitting ode to Maine's first female governor — and the first from Franklin County.

A Democrat from Farmington, the 71-year-old former attorney general espouses a holistic approach to governing, speaking of "one Maine, undivided," in her inaugural address that ended with a "Welcome Home" to Mainers — already sounding a very different tone to her predecessor, Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

But what does the change in leadership mean for business over the next four years, especially if the economy slows or even falls into recession?

As she begins to shape her policy, expectations so far are for a business-friendly approach — or least not a business-unfriendly or regulation-heavy one.

"If there were widespread concern about the new administration, I would certainly expect to know about it," says Murray Plumb & Murray's Christopher Branson, who chairs the Portland law firm's business and corporate practice law group. "Most of the feedback I've gotten from clients in my commercial transactional practice is positive."

Pierce Atwood partner Christopher Howard had a similar observation, saying it's his sense the new administration and new Legislature will be well-intended while noting that businesses also have a role to play, adding: "They have to really participate in the process in order to get their needs identified."

As Mills and her team get down to business, here are five policy areas — not a comprehensive list — that companies big and small should pay attention to.

1. Health care: Expanded access, but at what cost?

Mills used her first day in office to sign an order directing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to quickly expand Medicaid to an additional 70,000 Mainers — in line with a November 2017 referendum vote result long stalled by her predecessor. She also promises to sustainably pay for Medicaid expansion, ensure that everyone has primary care, rein in insurance and prescription drug costs and tackle the opioid epidemic. Experts will be watching the cost aspect closely and what it means for employers and individuals.

"We've been stuck talking about access, but the $64,000 question is how we are going to bring costs down?" says Mitchell Stein, a Brunswick- based consultant.

2. Clean energy and climate change

Tackling climate change and securing a clean-energy future with well-paying jobs are a key policy area for Mills, whose long list of goals includes incentives for solar and measures to support offshore wind development, diversifying the forest economy and working with business to try to lower energy costs.

She's also promised to create a Brave New World-sounding Office of Innovation and the Future to dive into major policy challenges and provide independent analysis on a variety of economic development, community development and natural resources issues. It remains to be seen how much funding she'll get for that and other promised new programs.

3. Workforce development and economic revitalization

Mills aims to build a "world-class workforce" on several fronts, from investing in education to rolling out the welcome mat for remote workers to bring their jobs — and business ideas — to Maine.

"To employers, enterpreneurs and innovators, with new ideas for forest products aquaculture recreation, renewables and everything in between, I say, 'You are welcome here,'" she said in her inaugural address.

Her action plan for Maine's economic future also calls for creating a Small Business Accelerator to help startups access financing, train workers and cope with state regulation, and providing a Rural Workplace Grant to help communities turn downtown buildings into broadband-equipped coworking hubs, which fits into a broader strategy of improving broadband access across the state. She sees immigrants as an important pillar of growing Maine's economy and workforce talent pool.

4. Affordable housing for seniors and young workers

The lack of affordable housing for seniors and young workers in urban areas is a major drag on economic growth — and employers' ability to recruit folks with the state and away — that Mills is determined to turn around. On Jan. 15 she signed an order to release a $15 million senior housing bond passed by voters in 2015 but essentially held in limbo by her predecessor.

"Selling those bonds a couple of years ago would have been far more favorable," says Avesta Housing President and CEO Dana Totman, "but we're encouraged that signing the bond will be a good first step."

5. Beer: Keeping the fizz in the biz

Beer is a growing industry in Maine, with craft brewers still popping up faster than you can say "IPA"— 99 breweries and an economic impact of $476 million in 2016, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. Non-drinkers also see the economic benefit, which includes money visitors spend at Maine restaurants, hotels and retail establishments. To support a thriving industry employing thousands of Mainers, Mills has promised tax incentives to boost local agricultural ingredient sourcing, a review of excise tax levels, and — most importantly — to lift the 50,000-gallon-a-year limit on what brewers are allowed to directly distribute to retailers and bars.

Don Littlefield, general manager of the Maine Brew Bus, says while his company isn't directly involved in distribution issues, "there is clearly a need for breweries to stay economically viable by getting their product to market."

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