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Janet Mills vetoes bills banning foreign electioneering, raising minimum wage for farmworkers

Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the media prior to signing into law a bill expanding access to abortions later in pregnancy, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the media prior to signing into law a bill expanding access to abortions later in pregnancy, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills vetoed two bills Wednesday — one that aimed to block foreign government-owned entities from spending money on Maine ballot campaigns, and another that would have guaranteed Maine farmworkers access to the state's minimum wage and other protections.

The former bill would have added Maine to a small list of states that prohibit groups owned by foreign governments from attempting to influence referendum campaigns through campaign donations, advertising or other types of "electioneering."

Mills wrote in her veto letter that while she supports the overall goal, the language of the bill is too broad and would likely silence "legitimate voices." For instance, Mills says the bill could prevent Maine-based businesses that have a 5% share of foreign government ownership from participating in ballot campaigns.

The governor also echoed concerns raised by the Maine Press Association and the Maine Broadcasters Association that the bill, if enacted, would require news outlets to have to determine the source of funding to campaigns that purchase ads or other communications. Instead, Mills said she would support enacting “a more narrowly tailored and easily understood statute.”

“Foreign actors have, and will, attempt to influence elections in America but in attempting to protect our citizens from such nefarious actors, we should not create a bureaucratic morass that will entrap and silence otherwise legitimate voices and undermine the fundamental American cornerstones of free speech and free press,” Mills wrote.

The second bill would have ensured that farm workers earn no less than Maine's hourly minimum wage of $13.80. It also would have made them eligible for certain overtime protections under state law.

In her letter to the state lawmakers, Mills said she's vetoing the bill "reluctantly," because she "strongly supports a minimum wage for farmworkers."

"But this confusing evolution of the legislation has led to a series of questions from members of the agricultural community about the true scope of the language," Mills' veto letter reads.

The bill, Mills argues, may pose too many unintended consequences that could affect other aspects of state unemployment and compensation laws.

The bill, LD 398, was introduced by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and cleared the Maine House and Senate earlier this month.

"The governor’s veto sends a clear message to farmworkers that they are second class citizens, not worthy of the same rights and protections other workers enjoy," Cynthia Phinney, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, said in a statement late Wednesday. "This veto carries on the historical stain and stench of exploitation and racial exclusion. It’s embarrassing and shameful. Farmworkers are some of the hardest working people in our nation and they deserve fair and equal treatment.”

Mills said she plans to reform a stakeholder group through an executive order in the coming weeks. The group will discuss how Maine can best ensure that agricultural workers are earning the state minimum wage.

"Out of this work, I believe we can arrive at a shared understanding of how to implement a minimum wage bill for farmworkers, at which point I will present a governor's bill during the second regular session of this Legislature to address these issues without the confusion that now surrounds this bill," Mills wrote.

Maine Democrats have tried on multiple occasions to pass similar legislation. One measure that would have allowed farm workers to form a union passed the Legislature but failed to gain enough support from state lawmakers to override a veto from Mills last January.

Lawmakers will vote on whether to override the governor's vetoes next Tuesday. And if they don't, voters would still get a chance to weigh in on electioneering issue because the bill was the result of a citizen’s initiative.

In the initiative process, any referendum questions that receive enough petitions to qualify for the ballot go to the Legislature first, which has the option of approving it or sending the issue to voters. This would have been the first time in more than 16 years that lawmakers approved an initiative rather than allowing voters to weigh in.

But Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican who helped lead the push to pass the initiative through the Legislature, blasted the governor for her veto in a statement released by Protect Maine Elections, the group behind the ballot campaign.

“With this veto, the Governor has once again ignored the will of the voters and the legislature and is refusing to protect our elections from foreign governments that wish to disrupt our democracy,” Bennett said in a statement. “The opponents of this initiative are few, foreign, and financially unfettered and it’s extraordinarily disappointing that the Governor would succumb to their influence. We cannot let them succeed. A referendum election should be considered a backstop for when the legislature fails to act on an initiated bill. I urge my colleagues to stand with the Maine people and vote to override the Governor’s veto of LD 1610.”

Mills vetoed a similar bill two years ago, raising similar concerns about the constitutionality of the proposal. That proposal, as well as the similar version introduced this year, was inspired by the millions of dollars spent by Hydro-Quebec to defeat a 2021 referendum to block a high-voltage transmission line that the company hoped to build with Central Maine Power through western Maine. Hydro-Quebec is owned by the province of Quebec.

Voters blocked the transmission corridor only to have the courts essentially overturn that decision, saying the developers of the New England Clean Energy Connect had already completed enough of the project before the vote to proceed.