July 13, 2020

Investing in what works for Maine

As the Brookings Institution released Charting Maine’s Future Thursday, members of the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Research, Economic Development, and the Innovation Economy were at work in Augusta reviewing Maine’s current investments in research and development (R&D). It has been 10 years since Maine’s R&D plan was created and though our final recommendations won’t be ready until December, one thing is already clear: Maine has an effective R&D plan, but we need to invest in it more to maximize benefits. The Brookings Report concurs, offering bold methods we must consider to streamline government and redesign our tax structure to reinvest in Maine places and innovation.

I know what you are thinking, and I agree. Maine didn’t need another study to tell us that we need to grow our economy or that Maine is a special place and ought to be preserved. But unlike a lot of studies, the Brookings Report shows us how to grow Maine’s economy in a way that will preserve traditional Maine values. A way to have it both ways, as they say.

The report outlines in great detail that Maine’s economy has been in flux, but it also stresses that Maine has reason to be optimistic and if we make smart decisions today, our future will be even brighter. The good news is that much of the groundwork has already been laid in R&D and higher education for Maine people and policy leaders to take the next steps.

In the past 10 years, Maine has invested responsibly in R&D through the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, Maine Technology Institute, and general obligation bonding. In fact, 10 years ago Maine was so skeptical about R&D investment that we created one of the best accountability and evaluation methods in place in the United States today for R&D spending.

Thursday, the Joint Select Committee reviewed the 2006 Evaluation completed by the University of North Carolina’s Center for Competitive Economies. This review shows that Maine’s R&D growth rate since 1999 has increased 169 percent, while growth was 13 percent nationally and 23 percent in New England over the same period. Evaluators also found that “the ultimate objective of economic development is being realized despite challenges posed by Maine’s economy.”

The Brookings Report is not without its criticisms on how some R&D monies have been allocated. But, as the report also points out, the desire to see all parts of Maine succeed has sometimes allowed efforts to be spread thinly across the state. Mainers want to see all boats rise; it is something inherent to our sensibilities. The Joint Select Committee is already considering this issue and examining how we can ensure maximum return on our investments, and maximum success in all areas to benefit all Maine people.

Another success story is found in higher education in Maine. The creation of the rapidly growing Community College System has enabled more Maine people of all ages to access higher education and gain the skills they need for life and work in today’s economy. Maine’s University System has also grown in student population and in quality, working effectively as the powerful economic engine it was designed to be.

Supporting the basic operations of these systems means increased access through lower tuition costs and fees, and a greater return to Maine’s overall economy as the institutions can do more, faster to raise the standard of education for all Maine people at all levels. We are moving in the right direction, but we need to move quickly and deliberately by making aggressive investments in these institutions and their work.

The Brookings Report is good news for Maine, and I am glad to have it supporting what I already know – that we need to do more. Maine has great potential to use its resources to grow the economy, if Maine people demand significant and responsible investment in what we know already works – education and research.

State Rep. Emily Ann Cain, D-Orono, is the House chair of the Joint Select Committee on Research, Economic Development and the Innovation Economy, and is a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

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