I am fortunate to live in a state where the term “citizen legislator” really means something. I was a person who went to work in the woods and when I saw an injustice in the workplace I got involved. Observing the plight of people who get up every day and go to work with little or no say in their own workplace compelled me to speak up.
In my eight years in the Legislature I have been honored to serve on a committee where my voice and the voice of all Maine workers can be heard — the Labor Committee. For the first time in over 120 years, however, that voice may be muted as the Republican leadership in the Maine Legislature has recommended eliminating this committee and merging their workload with a new Commerce, Workforce, Research and Development Committee.
In this day and age, with very technical labor issues and an electorate that is truly suffering from recession fatigue, I think a stand-alone Labor Committee is more important than ever.
People are frustrated and this election was clearly a reflection of that angst. But before we make a knee-jerk reaction I hope the full Legislature really thinks through the ramifications.
According to the Legislature’s Office of Policy and Legal Analysis the Labor Committee has jurisdiction over: the Maine Department of Labor, wage and hour laws, work force development, unemployment compensation, the Worker’s Compensation Board and the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, to name a few. There are no bumper sticker solutions to the many complex issues that go before this committee.
To move these issues away from a dedicated committee would be a mistake, in my opinion. Frankly, it sends the wrong message, and substantively it would make it very difficult to truly investigate these very complex issues.
The Maine Republican Party campaigned this past election on the slogan “working people vote Republican” and if one of its first moves upon assuming power is to eliminate this committee I think it is a slap in the face to all working people.
A line of reasoning being advanced for the consolidation of committees is that labor and business interests should be heard together. Senate President Kevin Raye has stated that business and work force interests should be “made in context rather than in a vacuum.” As Senate chair of the Labor Committee during the last session, I can state that no decision was made in a vacuum. I know the business community as well as if not better than many folks in the labor community.
Maine businesses benefit from the work done in this committee. In fact, the Maine Chamber and Business Alliance stated in its end of session newsletter “that a number of the most contentious pieces of legislation (in the Labor Committee) ended up favorably for the business community.” The Chamber went on to say that “we think the 2010 Joint Standing Committee on Labor should be commended for its work and understanding.”
What has happened up to this point is that the Senate Republicans have increased their staff numbers and need more office space. They made a plan to annex a State House Committee Room for staff use and reduce the number of legislative committees by one. I can certainly get behind changes that make our process run better but not at the expense of one group over another.
As we deliberate on this it is my hope we will move forward thoughtfully and truly listen to all sides. A combined business and labor committee could easily have more bills than any other committee, and the bills would be very complex. Now is not the time to overload this type of committee.
Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, represents District 35, which covers northern Aroostook County, in the Maine Senate. Last session, he served as the Senate chair of the Labor Committee, and he served on the Labor Committee all three terms he was in the House of Representatives.