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The focus is on Gov. Mills as lawmakers ready votes to pass Maine family leave bill

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address on Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. On Wednesday, May 10, Mills proposed nearly $900 million for a supplemental budget, with the additional spending intended to tackle urgent problems including affordable housing, shelter for homeless people and emergency medical services.
Robert F. Bukaty
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address on Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. On Wednesday, May 10, Mills proposed nearly $900 million for a supplemental budget, with the additional spending intended to tackle urgent problems including affordable housing, shelter for homeless people and emergency medical services.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will likely be forced to choose between allowing a paid family leave bill to become law or risk a statewide referendum on the issue next year, financed by progressive megadonors.

That choice is already weighing on Mills, who has long shown deference to the business groups currently opposing paid family and medical leave, or PFML. The bill would guarantee Maine workers paid time off to care for an ailing family member or themselves.

The Legislature could soon vote on the proposal, which has broad support among the Democrats who control the House and Senate. Should it become law, Maine would join the 11 states that guarantee paid family and medical leave.

Republicans and business groups have been pushing an alternative fashioned after voluntary leave programs in New Hampshire and Virginia, but so far there has been little indication that legislative Democrats are interested. Even if they were, it’s unlikely that progressive advocacy groups would be discouraged from advancing a PFML law at the ballot box next year.

Those groups say they already have enough signatures to qualify for next year’s ballot. They’ll likely have the financing, too. Mainers for Paid Family Leave, the ballot committee that collected the signatures, last year received a $1 million donation from the Maine People’s Alliance, or MPA. The MPA, a progressive advocacy group, last year disclosed that the donation came from an array of national groups financed by the biggest progressive donors in the U.S. Among those groups are the Sixteen Thirty Fund, an organization that spent $410 million on federal races in 2020, including the presidential contest between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump, as well as the failed effort to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Additionally, PFML is politically popular, garnering widespread support in national polling. Last year, advocates in Maine commissioned a poll by Pan Atlantic Research that showed 70% support for the PFML concept among Maine voters. Eighty-four percent of respondents who said they were voting for Mills last year said they supported PFML, while 57% who said they were voting for Mills’ Republican challenger, former Gov. Paul LePage, also supported it.

While various PFML bills have previously stalled in the Legislature, the prospect of enacting a program via referendum has loomed over the current legislative proposal, giving it momentum and urgency absent in past legislation.

“The unintended consequences — and I hate saying this — is that if we don't act now, something is going to get passed,” said state Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, the lead sponsor of the PFML bill that cleared the Labor and Housing Committee last week.

What is PFML?

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to deal with their own health condition or that of a severely-ill family member, as well as the birth of a child. The federal law applies to public agencies and private employers with 50 or more workers.

But unlike 120 other developed countries, the U.S. does not mandate paid leave for the above purposes. While Congress has considered proposals to do so, it has never been able to make it happen, even when Democrats had full control of the federal government between 2021 and 2022.

At the urging of labor groups and progressives, states have sought to fill the gap at the state level with different proposals of varying benefit and funding mechanisms.

In Rhode Island and Connecticut, workers pay the entire cost of the PFML premium out of their paychecks. PFML programs in Massachusetts and New Hampshire split the costs between employers and employees but by different percentages. And other states have different standards for how a worker qualifies for PFML.

The current proposal in the Maine Legislature would allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave after the birth of a baby, to care for an adopted or foster child, or if they or a loved one has a serious health condition. Compensation would be tiered so that employees would receive 66-90% of their pay, but no more than the state's average weekly wage. The program would be funded through a payroll tax of up to 1%, evenly split between employers and employees. Employers with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt from contributing to the program, but workers would still pay their portion so they could use the benefit.

The arguments

Supporters of the Maine PFML bill argue that the program is necessary because the federal leave program forces workers to go without a paycheck while caring for themselves or a family member, or bonding with a newborn.

Daughtry, the bill’s lead sponsor, has also argued that PFML will help with worker retention.

“A program like this incentivizes people to know that when the worst happens, that they don't have to decide between taking care of themselves or their loved one and being able to keep the lights on,” she said before last week’s committee vote.

She added, “This is not a ‘Go home and sit on your butt’ bill. This is a ‘Go home, heal up and get ready to fight another day’ bill.”

Business groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, take a starkly different view. While they say they support a family leave program, they also worry that the Maine proposal is too generous compared to other states, particularly New Hampshire, where the PFML program is voluntary.

"We do support the idea of paid family medical leave as a public policy in this state. We just don't support this version of it," said Peter Gore, a consultant for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, before the bill’s public hearing.

Gore also said the bill will put a significant administrative burden on small businesses and potentially worsen the current workforce shortage.

"People are paying into this system," he said. "They are going to want to utilize this system. The businesses, particularly small businesses, already have significant workforce challenges. How are they going to find someone to take a job on a 12-week basis if they can't find full time workers now?"

The governor

Mills outlined a range of concerns about the bill during her public testimony. Some have been addressed in various changes since the public hearing.

However, Mills has been quiet since the bill emerged from committee last week. In a statement after the committee vote, a spokesperson for the governor said only that Mills would review amendments to the proposal.

There has been some speculation that Mills might draft her own version of PFML, just as she did in 2019, when the Legislature enacted a paid sick leave bill affecting roughly 200,000 workers. At the time, a paid sick leave ballot initiative hovered over lawmakers, and the governor’s intervention by way of a compromise was widely lauded by groups like the Maine State Chamber as saving businesses from a more benefit-rich alternative that could’ve gone before voters.

“Knowing that something was going to pass, knowing that the referendum was hanging over the heads of Maine businesses out there — which would be a very difficult campaign to win — this is as good a proposal as we could expect," Gore said at the time.

While business groups might be hoping for a similar outcome on PFML, there has been no indication yet that Mills is crafting a compromise that isn’t already reflected in the current bill. And, with the Legislature set to adjourn in about two weeks, time is running out to create an alternative of her own.

The governor also indicated that the prospect of a PFML referendum should be incentive enough for lawmakers to compromise on the legislative alternative. Testimony on her behalf described the looming ballot question as a “blunt policy” unresponsive to the interests of Maine’s economy, Maine’s workforce, or small businesses.

“The governor believes that when it comes to complicated public policies like this one there is always a middle ground,” written testimony on her behalf said.

Will passage of PFML bill halt the referendum?

It looks like it, although that will likely depend on whether there are additional changes to it.

Cate Blackford, policy director for the MPA, was asked on Maine Calling Monday whether enacting the legislative proposal will mean the end of the referendum campaign.

“Well, that certainly depends on the policy that would be passed,” Blackford said. “But if we're looking at the legislation that got voted out of the Labor and Housing Committee, then yes.”

Next steps

The PFML proposal cleared the labor committee, but it’s not certain when lawmakers in the House and Senate will vote on it.

It’s expected to pass. If it does, Mills will have 10 days to either sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without her signature.

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