State House lawmakers hammer out agreement on disputed panel

Posted Dec. 15, 2010, at 10:43 p.m.

Labor, business panels become one; name change key to compromise

AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican and Democratic leaders all were claiming victory Wednesday evening after negotiating a compromise that would create a single legislative committee with jurisdiction over both labor and business issues.

For several weeks, Democrats and union members have been railing against a Republican plan that they suggested was the new GOP majority’s attempt to minimize the importance of work force issues by eliminating the Legislature’s Labor Committee.

Republicans had argued they merely were merging the Labor Committee with the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee to improve efficiency and better integrate policy decisions that affect workers and businesses.

After hours of closed-door negotiations, members of the Legislature’s Rules Committee and other legislative leaders agreed on a merged committee but with a key name change that seemed to appease Democratic concerns — at least publicly.

The new committee, if approved by the full Legislature this Friday, will be called the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

“The most important thing was keeping the Labor Committee and its function together, which we have done,” said Rep. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat and member of the Rules Committee.

“It was never the intention of any proposal to take away anyone’s voice but to give us all a voice,” said Sen. Jonathan Courtney, a Springvale Republican and Senate majority leader. “We have come up with a better solution.”

Things were not nearly as chummy in the State House earlier in the day, however.

Just before the Rules Committee convened after 10 a.m., more than 30 representatives of unions or pro-labor groups along with several Democratic lawmakers held a press conference to denounce the Republican plan.

“Our message to the GOP leadership is stop playing politics with peoples’ lives,” said Matt Schlobohm with Maine AFL-CIO. “Eliminating the Labor Committee marginalizes the voice of working people and sends a terrible signal to the working men and women of this state that their concerns don’t matter and that they are second rate.”

Speakers also dismissed as a last-second PR stunt the GOP’s announcement Tuesday evening that the proposed committee would be called the Jobs Committee.

Sen. Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat who was co-chairman of the Labor Committee last session, took a shot at the Maine GOP’s oft-repeated slogan during the campaign that “Working people vote Republican.”

“I don’t understand: If working people vote Republican why do you want to take away the Labor Committee as your first act,” Jackson said. “If this is how it’s going to happen, for me I guess the gauntlet is down for the next two years.”

About an hour later, the Maine Republican Party returned the volley by accusing the press conference speakers of spewing “anti-jobs rhetoric” by opposing a Jobs Committee in the current economic climate.

“Unfortunately, Maine’s organized labor community seems to be more focused on exploiting this issue for their own political gain,” Christie-Lee McNally, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said in a statement. “Maine’s working people aren’t interested in labor union power-grabs, they’re interested in preserving and creating good jobs for Maine.”

Ultimately, Republicans hold the majority of seats on the Rules Committee and control both the House and Senate for the first time in decades. But the compromise allowed both sides to claim victory.

Republicans pointed out that the proposed merger reduces the number of standing committees from 17 to 16.

“By streamlining the legislative process, it should lead to greater efficiencies, a more productive use of legislators’ time and potential cost savings,” Rep. Phil Curtis, the Republican House majority leader, said in a statement.

In their press release, Democrats never use the word “merge” but instead said opponents joined forces to “preserve the Labor Committee and bring key business issues under its control under a renamed committee.”

No matter what the committee is named, its members likely will face a heavy burden as the work of two committees is consolidated into one. To help manage the load, Rules Committee members proposed shifting some responsibilities — such as the Labor Committee’s oversight of the Maine State Retirement System — to other committees.

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