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Public-sector version of right-to-work bill still out there

Posted March 29, 2012, at 11:51 a.m.
Last modified March 29, 2012, at 1:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers in the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee have dealt with a number of contentious issues this session, from changes in the workers’ compensation laws to oversight of the Maine State Housing Authority.

But one controversial issue held over from last year is yet to be resolved.

LD 309 is a bill that would alter how public employees unions collect fees from nonmembers. Known as “right to work” legislation in private-sector circles, it’s known as “fair share” when dealing with public employee unions.

State employees are not forced to join a union. But if they benefit from union negotiations on contracts and in labor disputes, they must pay their “fair share,” and those service fees of roughly $6 a week are taken automatically from their wages.

LD 309 would make payment of those service fees voluntary.

The bill broke down mostly along party lines last year, and also enjoyed support from Gov. Paul LePage. The legislative committee held an hours-long public hearing on the bill, which showed up for debate late in the session.

Then, in the waning days of the session, Republican leaders agreed to shelve the bill for a year. Union leaders suggested at the time that the leaders recognized they didn’t have the votes to pass the bill.

Fast-forward to the present. The current session is expected to be done by the middle of next month, and most bills have been reported out of committee to the full Legislature. But LD 309 has not yet had a work session.

Committee leaders have said they’re waiting for Republican leadership to tell them what to do with the bill. Republican leadership has been mostly mum on the subject. House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakfield, had no comment, other than to note through a spokesman that there were a number of bills still waiting in committees, LD 309 included. Likewise, in a statement, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, wrote, “LD 309 is one of several issues still before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.”

Democratic leaders and union officials said they’ve heard little on the bill.

“I personally would like to see the bill voted unanimously ought not to pass in committee,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House minority leader. “I think it’s been lingering out there causing nothing but strife and angst for working people in Maine. It’s not helpful as we try to focus on job creation and economic development as a state.”

Cain said lawmakers can’t hold the bill for the next session; the next Legislature will be a new one. The bill can be reported out to the full Legislature after a work session, or it could sit in the committee and die at the end of the session, she said.

“It is right now in the hands of Republican leadership to determine the next steps on the bill,” Cain said.

Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said he hasn’t heard anything specific on the bill. Union leaders have done vote counts, Quint said, though he wouldn’t discuss specific numbers related to how many people in each body he thought would support or oppose the bill.

“We feel confident in the conversations we’ve been having since last year about this issue that when or if this comes to the fore, that we will be successful,” Quint said.

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