Think Tank Coworking in Portland. (photo courtesy/Think Tank)

Despite expectations that partisan politics would defeat a bill to support co-working spaces in Maine, several Republicans crossed the aisle on Tuesday to cast their vote in favor of the bill.

The bill—LD 285, “An Act To Provide Funding for the Maine Coworking Development Fund”—passed the House last week in a party-line vote of 77 to 66, with Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans opposing. At the time, Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), the bill’s sponsor, was not hopeful that his bill would be able to pass the Senate, which is controlled by the Republicans, if it suffered another party-line vote.

However, the Senate on Tuesday voted 22-13 in favor the bill, with five Republicans crossing the aisle to support the bill:

  • Sen. Tom Saviello, who represents Franklin County and parts of Kennebec County;
  • Sen. Lisa Keim, who represents portions of Androscoggin and Oxford counties;
  • Sen. Paul Davis, who represents Piscataquis County;
  • Sen. Dana Dow, who represents Lincoln County; and
  • Sen. David Woodsome, who represents portions of Oxford and York counties.

The bill provides a one-time infusion of $300,000 into the Maine Coworking Development Fund, which the Legislature created in 2015 to provide $100,000 a year to help develop co-working spaces around the state. Gov. Paul LePage opposes the fund and had proposed zeroing out funding for it in the biennial budget he released in January, leaving the fund’s future in question.

Asked in an email why he joined the Democrats in voting for the bill, Sen. Saviello was succinct.

“The bill supports small business startups,” he replied.

Sen. Lisa Keim, a Republican senator from Dixfield, offered a more detailed explanation for her vote.

“This grant has been valuable to my local community, so mine was a vote to help rural Maine business startups,” she said.

Despite her vote in favor of the bill, she believes a better way for the state to support co-working spaces is for the state to back low-interest loans rather than provide outright grants. She also expressed a worry that the fund would continue to provide grants year after year to the same co-working spaces rather than use the grants to help co-working spaces with initial startup costs.

“For these reasons, I will not vote to override the veto which will surely be coming,” she said. “With state finances so tightly pressured, the populace’s urgent demand for increased school funding and lowered property taxes, the Legislature must follow the priorities set by the people. The bald fact is that good programs will be left without funding.”

If the Maine Coworking Development Fund does eventually get cut, Sen. Keim said she wants to create something similar “with low-interest loans and judicious parameters.”

“I believe we can find ways of helping rural Maine business get off the ground, without direct hand-outs,” she said.

Fecteau on Tuesday said he was thankful the bill enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate.

“Co-working spaces are critical pillars in our 21st Century economy,” Rep. Fecteau told Maine Startups Insider after the Senate vote. “They attract young people, entrepreneurs, and Maine’s roughly 15,000 remote workers. Given our tourism economy, co-working spaces could very well mean our visitors spend an extra week stay in Bethel, Millinocket, or Portland.”

The bill now goes to the appropriations table, where all bills that include a fiscal note are sent after being passed by the Legislature. Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee are then tasked with finding ways to fund all the bills that have an attached cost. If they find a way to fund a bill, it moves forward to final enactment. If lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee can’t find a way to fund the bill, then it dies on the table.

The Maine Coworking Development Fund distributed its first $100,000 in February. The recipients were Fork Food Lab in Portland, which received $25,000; Open Bench Project in Portland, which received $12,500; Our Katahdin Properties in Millinocket, which received $25,000; Think Tank in Portland, which received $25,000; and The Gem in Bethel, which received $12,500.