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Gov. Janet Mills vetoes her farmworker wage bill citing litigation change by lawmakers

In this Aug. 24, 2018 file photo, a worker pours wild blueberries into a tray at a farm in Union, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press file
In this Aug. 24, 2018 file photo, a worker pours wild blueberries into a tray at a farm in Union, Maine.

Governor Janet Mills has vetoed a bill that would establish a minimum wage for farmworkers and allow them to receive cost-of-living increases.

The proposal was brought forward this year by Mills herself after she vetoed a similar initiative last year. The current bill would allow farmworkers to earn the state’s minimum wage – currently $14.15 per hour.

But the governor said a change to her bill by lawmakers compelled her to veto it.

The amended version would allow farmworkers to sue their employers, a prospect that the governor said goes well beyond her proposal which would have left wage enforcement up to the state labor department.

She argued that the amended version enacted by lawmakers threatens the survival of an industry that has lost more than 1,100 farms in the past 12 years.

"I am deeply disappointed that I have to take this step, but the Legislature's changes to the bill leave me with no choice," Mills said in her veto letter.

She also noted that a stakeholder group that helped craft the bill learned that most farms in Maine already pay their employees the minimum wage.

The governor's rationale for rejecting the proposal was characterized as an "embarrassment" by the Maine AFL-CIO, a federation of unions.

"Governor Mills’ veto sends a clear message to farmworkers that they are of second class status and are not worthy of the same rights and protections other workers enjoy," Maine AFL-CIO director, Matt Schlobohm said. “This veto is an embarrassment to the state of Maine and a continuation of a long history of exclusion and exploitation.”

The Legislature will have a chance to override the governor's veto, but the prospects of doing so are dim. The proposal narrowly cleared the House and it takes two-thirds of both the House and Senate to override a veto.

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