Dill responds to questions about job-creation claims

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HALLOWELL — State Sen. Cynthia Dill, Maine’s Democratic candidate for Olympia Snowe’s soon-to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat, said on her campaign website last month that she “has a record of … creating quality jobs” during her six years in the state Legislature.

But an analysis of Dill’s legislative history by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting found that claim to be largely premature. To date, only five permanent jobs can be attributed to Dill’s legislation, plus another 323 temporary positions, the bulk of which are construction jobs.

During an interview last week, Dill defended her record when questioned about the validity of her job creation claim.

“It’s a job,” the Cape Elizabeth state senator said. “Whether they are temporary or not, it’s something that I’m very proud of.”

On the morning of July 17 – the day after the interview – Dill asked her web developer to modify the website, an email she provided to the center shows. The statement about job creation was removed on July 23.

The homepage now reads: “A middle class working mother fighting for jobs for American families, and a government that works for small business.”

When asked about the change on Wednesday, Dill said it had nothing to do with the publication of this story and that she had been working with a media consultant who recommended the change.

She stood by her claim that she has created quality jobs.

“Did I alone personally create jobs? No. But did the work that I did in the Legislature lead to jobs? Yes, I believe it has,” Dill said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the questions you asked.”

Dill is running against Republican Secretary of State Charles Summers, and several independents, including former Gov. Angus King.

Of the 42 bills Dill sponsored as a state legislator, two were directly tied to job creation. Of those, only one was signed into law and resulted in temporary construction work. The other – an effort to attract a data storage facility to Maine – died when it became clear that, absent state subsidies, the idea was impractical given the state’s high cost of energy.

Building broadband

The first of the two bills – “An Act to Enable the Installation of Broadband Infrastructure” – paved the way for construction of high-speed Internet lines to under-served areas of the state. Largely funded by a $25.4 million federal stimulus grant, the project came to be known as the Three Ring Binder, after the three interconnected rings that make up its design. Maine Fiber Company is overseeing the project.

Dill’s 2010 legislation allowed the company to hang nearly 1,100 miles of fiber optic cable on existing utility poles by subcontracting the work to the pole owners, such as power companies. When completed later this year, Internet providers can lease the fiber at a flat rate.

The concept is to provide high-speed Internet access to users in rural parts of the state, many of whom rely on slower, dial-up connections. An April study commissioned by the ConnectME Authority, which advises the state on broadband expansion efforts, found that nearly 50,000 Maine households don’t have broadband access.

Yet with $19 million already doled out by the federal government, few permanent jobs from the project have materialized.

Aside from the handful of permanent jobs at Maine Fiber, there are an estimated 323 “full-time equivalent” jobs attributed to the project. These include six positions with Tilson Technology Management, the company hired by Maine Fiber to manage construction. As the Three Ring Binder nears completion, Tilson employees have begun to move onto other projects, President Josh Broder wrote in an emailed statement.

The bulk of the remaining 317 jobs are temporary construction work. The figure – reported on a quarterly basis by Maine Fiber to the federal agency that oversees the project – is not an exact number. Rather, it is an estimate based on the number of hours worked, according to the U.S. government’s stimulus website.

Experts say permanent job creation from the project is unlikely to happen for years, long after the November election that decides if Dill becomes a U.S. senator.

Dill defended her job creation record repeatedly in a July 16 interview, before backing off her claim online.

“I would say before you make a judgment of the quality of the jobs, ask the people who have them: ‘Are they in a better place because of it?’” said Dill, who was quick to point out the majority of jobs created by other stimulus-funded projects are also temporary.

Those who have studied the project say it’s too early to quantify its economic effect. To date, it’s been more about job preservation than job creation, said Charles Colgan, a professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine.

Colgan does not expect “a significant expansion” in the number of jobs created by the project long-term, and said the more pronounced effect is longer hours for employees of the roughly two dozen utility pole owners paid by Maine Fiber to do make-ready work on the poles.

“It’s limited in the kinds of growth we’re talking about,” Colgan said. “One shouldn’t judge the economic consequences over the last few years; the story of this will play out over the next few decades.”

No economic development studies of the Three Ring Binder have been conducted by the ConnectME Authority, Executive Director Phil Lindley said. As with similar broadband expansion efforts funded by the authority, Lindley said he expected the majority of jobs to be temporary.

“It’s like building a highway,” he said. “You have a lot of jobs in the construction of it, but not a lot in the operation.”

Getting a data center

For Dill, implementation of the Three Ring Binder was a means to a second bill that she hoped would bring jobs to the state by attracting a data storage facility. Dill championed the potential for both projects on March 31, 2010, as she spoke to her fellow members of the House.

“The Three Ring Binder Project is about jobs and has the potential to turn some of Maine’s 20th century infrastructures into the cyber infrastructure of the 21st century,” Dill said. “Data and computer centers are the heart of the modern economy… Maine has a significant advantage in this critical and lucrative field in that financially troubled paper mills can be transformed into green data mills.”

Dill called the improved high-speed Internet access an “engraved and embossed invitation” to tech giants like Microsoft and Google to set up shop in Maine and, in doing so, create quality jobs.

But while she appeared to be banking much of the success of the Three Ring Binder on the creation of a data center powered by renewable energy, emails between Dill and legislative committee staff and industry executives show the idea was unlikely to succeed from the start.

In late October 2010 Dill asked Jon Clark, deputy director of the non-partisan legislative Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, for help in drafting a concept bill, titled “An Act to Bring a Green Data Center to Maine.” Clark worked with Dill on legislation in the past and had experience with the subject.

Clark sent an email to Matt Jacobson, former CEO of Maine & Co., a nonprofit aimed at attracting business to the state. Clark explained the impetus of Dill’s proposed legislation and asked Jacobson if he had any ideas to clear the hurdle of New England’s energy costs, higher than in upstate New York, for example, which had just promised more than $250 million in tax breaks and electricity discounts to attract a data center.

“Can we compete? Sure – for the right price,” wrote Jacobson, who ran for governor in 2010 and is currently the executive vice president of the Lewiston-based Internet technology company Oxford Networks. Jacobson explained that if Maine offered a 10-year subsidy to compete with other states, it would be spending $5,760 per day, or about $2.1 million annually.

“If we are prepared to offer that level of cash incentive, for 15-20 jobs, we could compete,” Jacobson wrote.

Soon after, it became clear the bill was not going to make it out of committee, Clark said in a recent interview.

“It was a cost issue,” he said. “A cost issue, obviously, is going to deep-six it.”

After reviewing the emails, Dill disagreed and said the reason the legislation died was purely political.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with the cost of energy … the cost of energy in Maine, while high nationally, is the lowest in New England,” Dill said, adding that she felt a newly formed political divide in the legislature was responsible for the bill’s ultimate failure.

Republicans took control of both the house and senate after the November 2010 election, the first time since 1973 Republicans held a joint majority in the legislature.

Dill was in the House at the time and resigned her seat to run for an unexpected vacancy in the state Senate.

“And there was the state Senate race, too,” said Dill, who assumed her current seat in the senate when she beat Republican candidate Louis Maietta in a special election last May. “There just wasn’t going to be anything associated with my work in the legislature that was going to give me a boost.”

At Dill’s instruction, Clark proposed a concept draft that would “encourage the development of a data center … that utilizes the Three Ring Binder infrastructure and creates jobs.”

In an attempt to salvage the bill, Dill submitted an amendment to create a strategy council to develop a plan to attract a data center, similar to the one she created in 2009 to advise the University of Maine system as part of the state’s effort to expand broadband access. The bill died in the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology. The committee co-chairs sent a letter to the state Department of Economic and Community Development urging it to report back with any progress by January 2012.

As of June, no follow up efforts have been made by the department, spokesman Doug Ray said. Ray said attracting a green data center “is not a focus right now.”

Energy committee co-chairman Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said that while he agreed with the gist of the bill, it wasn’t necessary to attract a data center. Thibodeau said Dill’s assertion that partisanship played a role in the committee’s decision “is unfortunate.”

“She brought a concept draft with very little information,” he said. “If Cynthia wants to pass legislation, she needs to do a little more homework and come back with some details.”

Matt Drange can be reached at mcpir[email protected]gmail.com. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell. Email: [email protected]. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org. Disclosure: Maine Center board member Fletcher Kittredge is also CEO of GWI, which was awarded the stimulus grant that was later transferred to Maine Fiber Co.

Sidebar Elements

Setting the Record Straight

This is the first in a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting series covering the Maine candidates for U. S. Senate. The series will appear between now and October in advance of the Nov. 6 election, and is focused on the claims each candidate has made, with special emphasis on key issues facing national leaders: jobs and the economy.