AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate approved a bill Thursday that removes an exemption in state law allowing independent, in-home child care providers to unionize and bargain collectively.
The vote was mostly along party lines. Every Republican except Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta voted for the measure and independent Sen. Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth joined them. All 15 Democrats opposed.
It now goes to the House.
Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, said it was inexplicable that this exemption exists in the first place and said the bill corrects a problem that has existed for years.
Democrats argued that it was another case of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration attacking unions. LD 1894 was a governor’s bill.
“They wanted the ability to talk to the state as a group and the [exemption] allowed that to happen,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, explaining the rationale for the exemption. “I know there are people who don’t like any ability to collectively bargain, but this actually helps the state to have one person [a union rep] to go to.”
The current law was put into place in 2007 to allow nearly 300 providers to unionize with the Maine State Employees Association. Those providers all receive subsidies from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to help low-income families pay for child care.
Dan Billings, the governor’s chief counsel, said the bill was not about the subsidy rate, which is set by the Legislature; it’s about equity.
“This is the only group of service providers [with an exemption] that allows them to come together to bargain for subsidy rates,” Billings told members of the Legislature’s labor committee during a public hearing late last month.
The bill was supported by the National Federation of Independent Businesses but opposed by the MSEA, the union representing the independent providers, and the Maine Women’s Lobby.
“These small businesses are advocating for sensible child care policies and regulation, including legislation affecting the child care voucher system, and water and safety regulations,” said Chris Quint of the MSEA.
This same measure was included in LePage’s initial biennial budget that was proposed last year but was stripped early in the process amid opposition. The governor wanted to lower the subsidy rate last year as well but that didn’t fly.
Some questioned the timing of LD 1894’s introduction.
Last month, the Maine Labor Relations Board rejected several points contained in a complaint filed by the MSEA and against the LePage administration. However, the board also ruled that the matter should go to trial to determine whether the administration negotiated in bad faith and interfered with union workers’ rights.
That decision was the latest in a drawn-out battle between LePage and the state’s largest public employees union.
Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.