I’ve lived in Oxford County since the day I was born. When I graduated from Mexico High School in 1972, with my whole life ahead of me, I was able to stay in the community I love because I had options here.
There were lots of job opportunities nearby — companies that paid good wages and benefits, putting their workers into the middle class. I could have made shoes, worked the line in a cannery or fashioned dowels or other wood products. I chose to work in the Rumford paper mill.
I had a few friends who left western Maine. They landed in different places around the state, country and world, planting their roots wherever life took them. I could have done the same thing.
Instead, I stayed. I married my wife, Claire — herself an Oxford County gal. I have three adult children who grew up in the River Valley.
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Today, our young people have fewer options. Our local paper mill is doing much better than others around the state, but other large employers have shut down — victims of globalization, bogus trade deals and an elite who cared more about their bottom lines than working families here in western Maine.
My kids left the River Valley, like so many of my neighbors’ kids have. This outward migration has gutted Oxford County. This story is playing out all over our state as our kids leave their hometowns to find opportunities they used to be able to find next door.
This is one of the biggest challenges facing our region and state. We need political and business leaders to work together to create the kinds of jobs that will allow our young people to stay. That means doing what we can to create fertile soil where companies and young people can put down roots.
This year, I was proud to support the creation of a program to attract large businesses — ones that support at least 250 jobs and pay workers good wages. The new Invest in Maine Capital Fund will be available to those businesses, helping them develop or expand their operations in our state. The program is modeled after similar programs that have been successfully implemented in other states.
I’m optimistic that new initiative will pay off for Mainers, but we’ll need to keep coming up with ways to stop and reverse the outsourcing of our jobs and young people. New, large investments in our infrastructure will help. So will a continued push to train our workforce for good jobs in growing fields.
Those things take time. Meanwhile, we need to do what we can to ease the pain of economic stagnation. That means easing the burden on our working- and middle-class families.
It means cutting taxes for Mainers who work for a living — those who live paycheck to paycheck trying to provide a life for themselves and their kids. Those are the people who should benefit from tax cuts, not the super wealthy. That’s why I was proud to support a budget that provided $135 million in tax relief, almost all of which went to the bottom 90 percent of income earners.
It means getting a handle on the most burdensome tax, the property tax, especially for our seniors and those on fixed incomes. We’ve doubled the Homestead Property Tax Exemption, and we need to do even more to focus tax relief where it’s needed most.
It means being a good steward of taxpayer dollars by ensuring they’re used for their intended purpose, whether that’s safeguarding welfare dollars from potential abuse or pushing back against Gov. Paul LePage as he tries to take funding away from conservation, public health or low-income kids to use for other pet projects.
There are no silver bullets. Maine’s jobs and young people didn’t leave our state overnight, and they won’t be brought back overnight. We face serious challenges.
But attracting new jobs, ensuring our tax code is fair to hardworking Mainers and safeguarding taxpayer dollars will help put us back on a path to prosperity, and it’s an agenda we should all support.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, is the lead Senate Democrat on the Legislature’s Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, and the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs.