AUGUSTA, Maine — State lawmakers unanimously approved a plan to merge two legislative committees that focus on business and labor issues on Friday, two days after a compromise defused tensions between Democrats and the new Republican majority.
During a special session, House and Senate lawmakers voted to combine the Labor Committee and the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee.
Legislators acknowledged that the new Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee will have a heavy workload as it oversees a long list of issues ranging from worker safety to consumer protection, economic planning and homelessness.
But at least on Friday, many Republicans, Democrats and labor groups appeared satisfied with the compromise, which kept most of the work force issues previously handled by the Labor Committee within the new committee’s oversight.
“We felt it was very important to have one committee where workers can go to have their voices heard,” said Laura Harper with the Maine Women’s Lobby, an Augusta-based group involved in work force and workplace issues.
Friday’s unanimous votes without debate were in stark contrast to the fiery rhetoric leading up to a Wednesday meeting during which members of the Rules Committee met for hours behind closed doors to hash out a compromise.
Democrats and pro-labor groups had accused Republican leaders of attempting to minimize the importance of work force issues by eliminating the 123-year-old Labor Committee.
GOP proponents, meanwhile, said they never intended to eliminate the Labor Committee but said a combined committee focused on both business and work force issues would be more efficient as the state attempts to spur job growth.
Rep. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat who served 10 terms as House speaker, said it is common for the new majority party to make structural changes after taking office. So while Martin said he did not agree with everything in the compromise, he accepted it as part of the “changing of the guard.”
“We have come to a conclusion, we unanimously agreed, and we are moving forward,” said Martin, who was involved in the negotiations as a Rules Committee member. “From our point of view, we feel we have maintained the voice of the Maine worker.”
The only lawmaker to express concerns about the proposal was Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, an Old Town Democrat and former co-chairwoman of the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee. Schneider said she worried issues important to businesses might get less attention under the new structure.
But Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, said the new committee is a reflection of the understanding that the state must focus on both employers and employees as it looks at the business environment.
Under the compromise, some of the issues previously handled by the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee — such as real estate and public services — will be transferred to other committees. One of the big issues taken off the Labor Committee’s plate is oversight of the Maine State Retirement System, which now will be handled by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
Labor unions had strongly opposed the original Republican plan. On Friday, a representative of the AFL-CIO said the union supports the new committee structure even though it has concerns about the workload of the new committee.
“But given the circumstances, where GOP leadership made clear its plans to do away with a Labor Committee, the compromise is the best possible outcome and a moral victory for working people,” Maine AFL-CIO President Don Berry said in a statement. “The Labor Committee is preserved with new responsibilities and the voice of working people is maintained.”
During Wednesday’s closed-door discussions, Rules Committee members and party leaders apparently spent a fair amount of time debating the name of the committee. Placing “labor” at the front of the committee name was viewed as a significant — if symbolic — part of the compromise.
That wasn’t the only example of sensitivity over a committee name.
Rules Committee members proposed changing the name of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee to the Veterans, Elections and Gaming Committee in order to reflect more accurately the group’s focus. Lawmakers said it was important to have the name begin with “veterans.”
But on Friday, some lawmakers apparently were put off by the fact that the renamed committee inevitably would be called the “VEG” committee. As a result, the Rules Committee recommendation was scrapped and the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee now will be known as the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.
“What’s in a name is important to certain people,” said Rep. Stacey Fitts, a Pittsfield Republican who served on the committee last session. “But also the connotation of what the letters spell out is important.”