Probing Politics: A little heat could improve Maine’s business climate

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Just as the 124th Maine Legislature reconvenes for its second session, the Maine Economic Research Institute has published its legislator ratings for the first regular session which ran from January to June of 2009.

The MERI ratings are intended to measure the performance of legislators on economic issues that impact job creation and business investment. Though some dispute the methodology, there is no debating whose records are the best and worst when it comes to creating a jobs-friendly atmosphere in Maine.

On the whole, the 2009 results are discouraging.

You’d think that with the economy in the tank, the folks back home would have seen a reasonable improvement in the Legislature’s attitude toward the state’s small businesses. It didn’t happen according to these numbers.

Compared with previous years’ ratings, the median score in the state Senate dropped from 59 in 2008 to 35 in 2009. The best score was achieved in District 27 by Sen. Doug Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft, with a 94.5 on a scale of 100. The worst rating belongs to District 16 Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who collected a score of 18.

By senate district, the greatest relative improvement for the economy occurred in Portland’s Senate District 8, where Democrat Justin Alfond (26.5) succeeded Ethan Strimling (10).

If voters in Senate District 15 wanted to throw an anchor to the drowning economy, they certainly succeeded. The most dramatic deterioration in economic representation belongs to Sen. Deborah Simpson, D-Auburn, (23) who narrowly defeated former state Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello (91). Another blow to the economy came from the record of Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Bath, (29) who defeated incumbent Paula Benoit (82) in Senate District 19.

The Maine Senate is considered the safety net by Maine’s business community. Why? A majority of the House of Representatives often make rash and irresponsible decisions that would chase businesses out of the state in the knowledge that the senate will do the right thing and kill their bad ideas. Unfortunately, the drop in the senate’s overall score suggests the level-headed approach among its 35 members has been weakened – and that’s not good for economic recovery.

In the House, the median score of 30 has remained unchanged since 2008.

Nevertheless, there was a decline in the median score among the top third of representatives, dropping from 86.5 in 2008 to 71 in 2009. That means businesses lost ground in the most supportive group in the House.

Rep. David Richardson, R-Carmel, scored the highest with 96.5 while the bottom rating was earned by District 79 Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, with a 6.5, the worst rating in the entire Legislature.

Many districts traded up in terms of job-friendly representation in the House when they elected the following legislators:

Rep. Bob Nutting, R-Oakland, (81.5) replaced Jill Conover (11.5) in District 78; Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, (93) replaced Peter Rines (26.5) in District 53; Rep. Jane Knapp, R-Gorham, (84.5) replaced Chris Barstow (27.5) in District 129, and Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, (91) defeated Tim Carter (25.5) in District 91.

It is amazing to see that voters in these districts either are closely divided in their views or they simply are responding to the quality of marketing we know as political campaigns. What else could explain the dramatic change in voting records of their representatives? The lesson, though, is that who you send to Augusta really makes a difference.

The most improved MERI rating for an incumbent belongs to District 10 Rep. Herbert Clark, D-Millinocket, whose score improved by 37 points, from 34 in 2008 to 70 in 2009. Clark’s paper mill district has been one of the hardest hit regions of the state. You’d think that his improvement would have been emulated by legislators in every county, but apparently not.

Many voters seemed to have self-inflicted wounds in their own districts, either by ousting an incumbent with a strong economic record or, due to term limits, replacing a strong advocate for the economy with people much less concerned about the state’s economic climate. Compared to their previous state representatives, the biggest losers in terms of jobs-friendly representation were voters in districts who elected the following legislators:

Rep. Rob Hunt, D-Buxton, (17.5) defeated Don Marean (87) in District 131; Rep. Helen Rankin, D-Hiram, (12) replaced Roberta Muse (78) in District 97; Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Lyman, (14) replaced Larry Jacobsen (79.5) in District 139; Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, (26.5) defeated Bonnie Gould (84) in District 146, and Rep. Andy O’Brien, D-Lincolnville, (26.5) defeated Bob Walker (81.5) in District 144.

I’d encourage you to send a courteous e-mail or make a respectful call to your state legislators about their MERI rating and encourage them to make the state’s economy their top priority during their second session, which began Monday. If they don’t hear what’s on your mind, they’ll just continue to go their merry way. It’s time we turn up the heat to improve the state’s economic climate.

What do you think?

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Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future and a Falmouth resident and town councilor. His column is published biweekly, and he can be reached at