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Potential ballot initiative looms large over State House debate on paid family leave

Sen. Mattie Daughtry, a Brunswick Democrat who co-chaired a state commission on paid family and medical leave, speaks at a State House rally on Feb. 7.
Kevin Miller
/
Maine Public
Sen. Mattie Daughtry, a Brunswick Democrat who co-chaired a state commission on paid family and medical leave, speaks at a State House rally on Feb. 7.

There’s a political debate looming at the State House about whether Maine workers should have guaranteed access to paid time off to care for an ailing family member or themselves after an illness or injury.

And looming above state lawmakers’ heads is the prospect – or threat – that groups with a track record of winning ballot campaigns will send the issue to voters if the Legislature fails to act.

“I do know that pressure is out there and it has brought some people to the table to have conversations,” said Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, who stands to be a major player in the coming negotiations.

The issue is whether Maine should join roughly a dozen other states – including four of its New England neighbors – with a paid family and medical leave (PFML) law.

Under federal law, most workers can take unpaid time off to deal with a family or personal medical issue. But advocates say that’s not enough because most people can’t afford to go weeks, much less months, without a paycheck as they care for a family member with a terminal illness or bond with a newborn.

The prospects of a federal paid family and medical leave law are dim given today’s divided Congress. So advocates are focusing on states – and in Maine are pursuing a two-track campaign.

The Legislature is the first and primary avenue. An as-yet-unpublished bill – based on a lengthy report from a special committee that Daughtry co-chaired – is expected to recommend up to 12 weeks of paid leave for a “qualifying need” and up to 16 weeks total over a year. As currently proposed, the new mandate would only apply to businesses with 15 or more employees.

To pay for the program, both workers and employers would contribute through essentially a payroll tax. The size and share of that contribution for workers and their employers, would have to be hashed out by lawmakers, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and business groups already leery of what they see as another business tax.

The alternative pathway is through the ballot box. But that’s a risky route for paid leave opponents.

Two progressive groups, the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Women’s Lobby, are already gathering petition signatures for a statewide referendum. And therein lies the danger: the version those pro-worker and pro-family groups put before the voters could differ significantly from whatever emerges from the more collaborative, albeit messy legislative process.

For instance, while the ballot initiative proposes that employees and employers split the contribution 50-50, the PFML commission’s report suggested policymakers consider anywhere from an even split to having workers pay 75% of the cost.

Those details, as well as the percentage of the payroll tax, would be negotiated in the Legislature but set in stone in the ballot initiative.

Business groups are already signaling that they want to avoid Maine adopting a policy that is more costly to employers than paid leave laws in other New England states.

In Rhode Island and Connecticut, workers pay the entire cost of the premium out of their paychecks. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts and New Hampshire (which has a voluntary PFML policy), the costs are split between employers and employees but by different percentages. There are also differences among states about how “qualifying need” and family are defined.

“We're interested to see how this proposal compares to those other states. And certainly we'd have concerns if this proposal went beyond what other states are doing," said Curtis Picard with the Retail Association of Maine, which represents 350 businesses with 85,000 employees.

But skeptics or opponents of a mandatory PFMA policy in Maine will be treading a tightrope, of sorts. Look no further than Maine’s minimum wage to see how blocking a potentially popular issue in the Legislature can backfire when it gets into the ballot box.

For years, business groups and their Republican allies successfully fought back repeated attempts to increase Maine’s $7.50 minimum wage. And then they lost big in 2016 when groups frustrated with years of inaction – including the Maine People’s Alliance – offered a statewide referendum increasing the minimum wage annually. It passed and today, Maine’s $13.80 minimum wage is 84% higher than in 2016.

Daughtry, who serves as assistant Senate majority leader, said she feels more positive and excited about the potential for a paid leave law than she has in her 10 years of work on the issue. But she acknowledged the prospect of a referendum campaign “definitely sets a timeline.”

“We are coming before the Legislature with what’s been a slow, deliberative, two-year process,” she said of the PFML commission. “And I think some of the best work we do is in these halls, where we have the elected representatives from all of the state being able to represent their constituencies and being able to craft a policy that really works for Maine.”

And then there’s the Mills factor.

Despite Republican campaign attempts to portray her as anti-business, Maine’s newly reelected governor is a moderate or centrist Democrat who has angered her party’s left-wing by blocking or vetoing bills that were opposed by business interests.

At the same time, Mills sponsored a 2019 law that established a paid sick leave policy in Maine.

“The Governor understands the importance of paid family leave, and she believes it is important that discussions before the Legislature take into consideration the landscape of Maine’s economy and the perspective of Maine employers, particularly small businesses,” said spokesman Ben Goodman.

Mills to address state

Speaking of Mills, the governor is slated to outline the vision underlying her $10.3 billion budget proposal to lawmakers and a statewide audience on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

In Maine, governors traditionally deliver a “budget address” rather than a “state of the state” speech during the odd-numbered years when they present a new, two-year budget. Either way, governors often use the speeches to talk about their policy priorities.

As we’ve discussed here before, Mills’ budget plan is pretty much a stay-the-course document that doesn’t propose any sweeping new initiatives or tax increases. But it is $1.6 billion larger than the last two-year budget (largely because of program expenditures approved by the Legislature since then) and would step across that symbolic $10 billion threshold.

Ultimately, it’s the Legislature’s job to decide how and where the state spends its money, although governors have significant sway and input. Republicans are already making clear that they want to see tax cuts, although they’d need Democratic support to do it.

Mills’ speech will be carried live on Maine Public’s television and radio stations as well as livestreamed online starting around 7 p.m. on February 14.

Penobscots ‘open for business’ as Biden emphasizes American-made

Chief Francis of the Penobscot Nation is urging President Biden to work with native communities as part of the “Made in America” initiative that Biden highlighted during this week’s state of the union address.

Francis attended Biden’s speech as a guest of Congressman Jared Golden, D-District 2, who has been working closely with Wabanaki tribes in Maine on sovereignty issues. Francis praised Biden for his focus on fighting cancer – which afflicts Penobscot tribal members at higher rates than the state or national average – as well as the president’s plan to increase resources to fight the opioid epidemic.

The longtime Penobscot chief also sees economic opportunities in Biden’s plan to require American-made materials for all federally funded infrastructure projects.

“As President Biden implements his Made in America initiative, we ask that he remember to include Native America,” Francis said in a statement on Thursday. “The Penobscot Nation is open for business and we want to play an integral part of growing our local and regional economies. We need the federal government’s support in that effort, including helping to eliminate obstacles on our tribal sovereignty.”

Ballot battle update

There were more developments this week in the two-fronted ballot box battle over Maine’s electricity grid.

In late January, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows announced that the No Blank Checks campaign had enough valid voter signatures to qualify for this November’s ballot. The campaign bankrolled by the parent company of Central Maine Power wants Maine voters to have to approve any governmental bond sales exceeding $1 billion. And that effort aims to kneecap another November ballot initiative that could force CMP and Versant to sell their assets to a quasi-governmental nonprofit.

But earlier this week, a leader of the Our Power campaign to create a so-called consumer-owned utility sued to force the removal of the competing referendum from No Blank Checks.

Bill Dunn, who is an electricity industry consultant, argued in court filings that Bellows’ office should have invalidated more than 3,000 additional petition signatures. Staff at the secretary of state’s office had already invalidated more 25,000 signatures for various reasons. But No Blank Checks ended up with roughly 1,100 more than the campaign needed to qualify.

If Dunn’s lawsuit moves forward, the Superior Court could direct Bellows’ office to re-review the signatures.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.