AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal to merge the Legislature’s Labor Committee with the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee led to a testy closed meeting of the new leaders of the Legislature and the decision to send the proposal to study.
“Part of this is being driven by the sense some of us have that sometimes debates around here happen in a vacuum,” said Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the incoming Senate president. “We are drawn to the idea of having one committee that is responsible not only for commerce and business, but issues that are related to the work force.”
He said the hope is that having one committee deal with all of those issues will lead to better policies for economic development and job creation. But, the proposal to change the committee structure in the rules adopted on the opening day of the session led to what one participant called a “spirited discussion.”
Democrats, however, saw the proposal as a move to reduce the importance of labor issues.
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, incoming House minority leader, said she opposed changing the committee structure on the opening day of the Legislature and agreed any committee changes deserved a hearing by the Rules Committee before the Legislature votes on the proposals.
“The unique interests and voices of working people in the state of Maine need to have a place where they can be heard in Augusta,” she said. “To me that is the Labor Committee.”
Cain said she is not surprised at the proposal, but said the merger would “minimize” the importance of labor issues.
Raye rejected the argument that the proposal would diminish the importance of labor issues. He said a similar argument that business concerns will not get as much attention from a merged committee also is wrong.
“We are trying to bring things into the 21st century and save some money,” he said.
The proposal, if successful, would reduce from 16 to 15 the number of standing committees of the Legislature, reducing staffing costs, he said.
Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, the presumptive speaker of the House, said the proposals are worth considering, but only after they have been studied by the Rules Committee. He said to have a lengthy debate over committee structure on the opening day of the session would not be helpful to the parties working together over the next two years.
“It’s not our intent to diminish the role of labor people,” he said. “It is to make parity between the two so that when an issue is looked at, it is not looked at in a vacuum.”
Nutting said the place to discuss committee structure is the Rules Committee, which will be composed of members of both parties and both branches. He said it is premature to assume they will recommend the particular changes.
But “floating” the possibility of changing committee structure on the first day rankled many Democrats. Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, incoming Senate minority leader, said he had heard from a lot of lawmakers on the issue.
“The Labor Committee not only is symbolic of Maine working people, but it has a history of protecting the workplace and making sure individuals have adequate wages,” he said.
Raye said the Rules Committee also is likely to consider name changes of other committees. He suggested Natural Resources may be renamed the Environment and Natural Resources Committee to more accurately reflect what the panel does.
Raye also suggested that with the increasing importance of technology to society, the Utilities and Energy Committee may be more aptly named the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.
Both Nutting and Raye said the review of committees would delay the process of naming lawmakers to the various committees. The Rules Committee will meet the week of Dec. 14, and the full Legislature will return for a session Friday, Dec. 17, to consider any proposed rule changes. The two leaders expect most committee as-signments can be made then.