AUGUSTA, Maine — House lawmakers gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would force timberland owners who hire Canadian loggers to withdraw from one of the state’s major tax incentive programs.
The bill, LD 1552, would prohibit landowners who use foreign loggers from participating in Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Law, which offers significant tax breaks on land that is kept in timber production.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, introduced the bill in response to long-standing complaints from northern Maine loggers who claim they routinely lose jobs to Canadian crews hired by contractors flouting state and federal labor laws.
“The original intent of Tree Growth was to help Mainers, not out-of-state corporations,” said Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford. “I think this bill levels the playing field, and it is something that should have been corrected years ago.”
But representatives for commercial landowners and logging contractors predict the bill, if enacted, could disrupt wood supplies to Maine mills. Opponents say the measure also penalizes companies for the legal use of Canadian loggers when American workers are unwilling or unavailable to work in more remote locations in the North Woods.
“This bill is aimed at the outright elimination of Canadian labor in the Maine woods,” said James Cote with the Maine Forest Products Council.
The House voted 83-58 to pass the bill Monday after considerable debate. The bill will be sent to the Senate after additional, likely perfunctory House votes.
Martin, who was an author of the 1972 Tree Growth law, said many northern Maine loggers continue to struggle with an old-boy’s network in which contractors make it difficult or extremely difficult for Americans to apply and qualify for jobs.
Those contractors then turn around and offer the positions to friends, relatives and co-workers from across the border, he said.
“Some people will say I want to try to get rid of Tree Growth, but that’s not true,” Martin said. “What I am trying to do is provide incentives to the people who own the land to provide jobs for Maine workers.”
Other lawmakers, however, warned that the bill could deal another blow to Maine’s already struggling forest products industry.
Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said it was wrong to punish landowners throughout Maine by denying them access to the Tree Growth Tax for problems primarily occurring in northern Aroostook County.
“If you create an environment where the landowners feel at risk … you will cause some of them to step back and we will see millions of acres change hands again,” Cushing said.
In an interview after Tuesday’s vote, Cote with the Maine Forest Products Council said changing market conditions brought about by the earthquake in Chile and labor strife in other countries could result in production increases in Maine mills.
But Cote said his organization believes Martin’s bill could reduce wood supplies to mills at a time when the wood products industry could expand.
Martin’s bill is a companion piece to another measure, sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, which would significantly increase the fines for violating the “bonded labor” laws governing use of Canadian loggers.
Jackson’s bill, LD 1545, also would bar violators from using foreign laborers for five years. The majority of lawmakers in the Labor Committee endorsed Jackson’s bill. It will now go before the full Legislature.
Tuttle, who co-chairs the Labor Committee with Jackson, indicated during House debate that he hoped to use Martin’s bill as a negotiating tool with the industry.
Martin said he chose to use the Tree Growth law as a hammer after efforts over the decades to address the cross-border tensions have failed. The longtime former speaker of the House told his House colleagues that the bill has caught the industry’s attention.
“It is the very first time in my legislative career on this issue that the landowners have actually called me and said, ‘What can we do?’” Martin said.
Rep. Tom Saviello, an unenrolled lawmaker from Wilton who worked more than three decades in the forest products industry, said he is aware of the cross-border tensions over Canadian loggers. But Saviello questioned Martin’s approach.
“Unfortunately, the hammer of Tree Growth is not the answer,” said Saviello. “It is the wrong message to send.”