AUGUSTA, Maine — The first showdown between the Legislature’s new Republican majority and Democrats could take place this week when lawmakers consider a plan to eliminate, at least in name, the committee that handles labor and work force issues.
Republican leaders claim their proposal to merge the Legislature’s Labor Committee with the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee will save money, increase efficiency, and better integrate policy decisions affecting both businesses and their workers.
“All of the issues handled by the Labor Committee would be dealt with by the new committee,” said Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale. “What has been proposed is very far from being radical.”
But Democrats, unions and left-leaning groups are raising the alarm. While some critics have accused the newly empowered Republican Party of attempting to minimize the importance of issues affecting workers, others are skeptical that the merged committee would be an improvement.
“I worry that a lot of important issues related to economic development and business as well as workplace safety and labor laws may be marginalized just because there will not be enough time,” said Rep. Emily Cain, an Orono Democrat and next session’s House minority leader.
Created more than 120 years ago, the Legislature’s Labor Committee oversees a host of labor-related issues, including workers’ compensation laws, unemployment benefits, pension and benefit packages for state employees, and worker safety laws.
Maine’s business climate and the need for regulatory reform were key issues during the recent election, and Republicans in the Legislature as well as Gov.-elect Paul LePage have pledged to make job creation and the concerns of businesses a top priority.
On Wednesday, the fate of the Labor Committee will be the hot topic when members of the Joint Rules Committee convene to set the ground rules for the coming session. The full Legislature is expected to consider the issue during a special session Friday.
Debate on the issue has been brewing for weeks as labor unions and other organizations mobilized their members — often through the Web or social media such as Facebook and Twitter — to halt or at least slow down the proposal.
“Eliminating the Labor Committee is bad policy, it’s bad precedent and it is a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of Maine people who get up every morning and go to work. And the new leadership is trying to do this as quickly as possible,” reads a call-to-action page on the Maine State Employees Association’s website.
Republican supporters of the measure called false any suggestions that labor issues would take a back seat in the new Committee on Commerce, Workforce, Research and Development. They accused union leaders and pro-union groups of using fear tactics in order to generate political opposition.
“It doesn’t eliminate anything; it just combines two committees,” Courtney said. “My hope is we can get past the rhetoric and we can sit down and have a good conversation in the Rules Committee.”
In an OpEd article published Saturday in the Portland Press Herald, Senate President Kevin Raye said that while a stand-alone Labor Committee made perfect sense during the Industrial Revolution, today the “needs and obligations of both workers and businesses” should be weighed together.
Raye, R-Perry, also pointed out that Congress as well as a majority of legislative chambers across the country have committees in which labor issues are combined with business, industry or other topics.
“The bottom line is that workers and businesses have a shared stake in the future,” Raye wrote. “Jobs would not exist without business, and business could not exist without workers.”
Cain said her initial reaction to the merger was negative but said she is willing to listen to arguments. To date, however, she has yet to see a formal proposal.
“We have been hearing discussion of this for weeks … and I haven’t heard or seen any rationale for why this is a good idea,” said Cain.
Republicans gained a majority in both chambers of the Legislature during the November election, but not by large margins. Some members of the GOP caucus have expressed concerns about the proposal to do away with a stand-alone Labor Committee.
Among them is Sen. David Trahan of Waldoboro, who said he is headed into this week’s session with concerns but an open mind. Trahan said he has heard from other Republicans who have yet to reach a decision on the issue.
“Right now, I’m feeling cautious because I know we are going to have a lot of issues related to labor and business,” Trahan said.