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January 19, 2009 | last updated November 30, 2011 4:45 pm
Inside Out

Getting it right | Smart spending suggestions for the Obama bailout plan

The United States is about to go on a spending spree. Our new president is proposing a $775 billion stimulus package. To put that number in perspective, Maine's share of the debt, based on population, would be about $4.2 billion. The entire state budget recently proposed by the governor totals $6.1 billion.

We are signing our children up for a huge loan. Economists and politicians will argue about the wisdom of this policy for a long time. Regardless of the final analysis, we have a solemn responsibility to spend this money wisely. We need to make sure we spend on long-term infrastructure that will pay dividends into the future.

Past generations have given us transcontinental railroads, the Eisenhower highway system and the Tennessee Valley Authority. How will we filter out the "bridges to nowhere" so that we can honestly tell our children that we spent their money on worthwhile projects?

For the last 400 years in Maine, our economy has been based on our access to natural resources. The sea and the forest were the basis for our ability to produce jobs and lives. For the next 400 years, no matter the industry, Maine's economic success will be tied not only to our access to natural resources, but to our ability to connect and add value to the world.

Put another way, we need to be able to move people, data and goods between us and the rest of the world. We need to build better connections to be successful in the future. Any project proposed for Maine should be required to enhance our connections.

What if the St. Lawrence & Atlantic and the Montreal Maine & Atlantic, the two railroads that service Maine and Montreal, had the ability to move people and freight at 80 mph? Think of the businesses and jobs we could attract and grow with that sort of link to Montreal and the west.

What if Maine's three ports (remember the three-port strategy?) could accommodate the world's largest ships? What opportunities for new and old businesses could we imagine if we could service and maintain the world's most advanced ships?

FairPoint Communications, Time Warner Cable and Oxford Networks have capital projects under way to enhance data connections for Maine. What if we decided that every business and home in Maine would have the fastest Internet connections available? What if that infrastructure allowed for several routes out of Maine for this data — to the south via Boston and to the north via Canada? IT redundancy and resilience in Maine might attract new companies while providing opportunity for new and existing businesses.

Changing the game

Energy costs will certainly play a major role in Maine's future economy. Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro Electric Co. both have ambitious capital projects planned to upgrade our existing power lines and increase the capacity they carry. What if low-cost power could flow from Quebec and the Maritime Provinces through Maine to Boston and New York?

Cheap power for New England could transform our economy. With this increased capacity, Maine could begin a significant program in alternative energy development. New capacity combined with our access to natural resources — wind, tides, wood and sun — could drive our economy for many years to come.

There are other energy projects we might consider. What if we decided to make every building and home in Maine as energy efficient as possible? The companies and jobs we could create would provide opportunities long into the future, not only for Maine but for the world.

There are those who would use this money for projects that will not have such long-term effects on our economy. Just in Maine, there are million-dollar proposals for new sewer systems.

Some are proposing money for high schools and airport terminal expansions. Others are suggesting that we use the money to maintain roads, bridges and highways.

But these projects won't create lasting opportunity for Maine. Let's fund our current needs with existing tax revenue and use this new stimulus as a way to "change the game."

We get only one chance to do this right. We can create a platform for lasting opportunity or we can squander money on projects that will have no long-term effect.

My daughter is three years old. When she is 30, will I be able to look her in the eye and tell her we did our best to make sure she had the chance to succeed in Maine?

Matt Jacobson, president of Maine & Co. in Portland, can be reached at mjacobson@maineco.org.

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