AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans, newly elected to majorities in the Maine House and Senate two years ago, sparked a contentious debate with Democrats when they opened the new session with a plan to merge the Legislature’s 100-year-old Labor Committee into the body’s panel focused on business and economic development issues.
Democrats at the time said they worried that the state’s working people would lose a dedicated place to air their concerns in Augusta.
Two years later, Democrats have returned to the majority, but they’re not moving automatically to split the resulting Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee back into two panels. The presumptive House speaker, Rep. Mark Eves of North Berwick, said earlier this week that legislative leaders have made no decisions about committee structure.
“We are still in the process of speaking with the members of our caucus about our priorities and first actions,” he said through a spokeswoman.
But at least two House Democrats are calling for the panel to be broken up into a committee focused on labor and workforce development issues and another focused on business and economic development policy.
“I would suggest that their attention was way too divided,” Rep. Terry Hayes of Buckfield said of those who served on the merged committee. “They were overworked, and the range of topics that they had to address was very, very broad.”
But Hayes — who co-authored a BDN OpEd with Rep. Paul Gilbert of Jay, advocating for the committee restructuring — isn’t calling for a return to the structure of the past, in which she said the Labor Committee had a reputation for focusing heavily on labor unions. Instead, she said, the Legislature needs a committee that can focus on policies meant to advance the development of the state’s workforce in the context of efforts to attract businesses and boost economic growth.
“If we’re not constituting a joint standing committee to focus on these issues, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not moving the needle,” Hayes said.
For Hayes, the Maine Economic Growth Council’s annual report that assesses Maine’s progress toward meeting 25 benchmarks for economic growth provides a starting point for the policy areas where a new labor and workforce development committee could focus its attention.
“We tend to be able to impact what we pay attention to,” she said.
The most recent Growth Council report, issued in March, concludes that Maine has made little progress recently in areas tied directly to the skills and health of the state’s workforce: per capita income, number of jobs available, higher degree attainment, on-the-job injuries and illnesses, gender income disparity and overall wellness.
“I believe we tend to get what we measure and what we pay attention to,” Hayes said. “From a cost-benefit analysis, reconstituting a labor committee, to me, is a very low-cost way to make sure there’s a policy focus.”
But some who initially opposed eliminating the stand-alone Labor Committee have warmed to the merged structure over the past two years.
“I’m one of those who would admit that I was wrong. I would hope that it would stay as is,” said Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, who served as the ranking Democrat on the combined panel after serving on the Labor Committee over the course of two decades in the Legislature. “I’m a labor guy saying that.”
Tuttle, a Sanford Fire Department emergency medical technician who won a state Senate seat in November’s elections, said the expanded scope of the combined panel allowed committee members to consider a broader range of perspectives.
“Those of us from the labor community got the insight of those from the business community,” he said.
The committee’s workload was expansive: It included overseeing agencies like the Maine State Housing Authority, the Finance Authority of Maine, the labor department and the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, along with vetting all related policy proposals.
While it made for a lot of work, the committee structure offered members valuable perspectives on the relationships between different policy areas, said Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, who chaired the combined committee before losing his bid for re-election in November.
“The opportunity to sort of holistically consider what’s involved on the workforce side of issues and the economic development side of issues, the business and management side, is an important conjunction,” he said.
In the end, Rector said, the committee made important reforms to the state workers’ compensation system and established a clear legal definition for independent contractors as opposed to full-time employees. Aside from a handful of contentious — and ultimately unsuccessful — proposals targeting collective bargaining, many proposals came out of the committee with unanimous agreement, Tuttle and Rector said.
The unanimous agreement on so many issues indicates the merged committee was a success, said Peter Gore, vice president of government relations for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s hard to have a business without employees. As an employee, it’s hard to have a good job unless you work for a successful business,” he said. “There was a lot of synergy between areas of public policy that involved workers and economic development and economic policy.”
But Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said the committee ended up with a large workload with limited time to consider important issues. Plus, he said, the intersections among its policy areas were sometimes overstated.
“A lot of the issues are really apples and oranges,” he said. “Dental licensing and workers’ compensation don’t necessarily reap enormous benefit by being under the same roof.”
What’s more important than committee structure, Schlobohm said, are the policies lawmakers take on, such as examining the state’s economic development tax breaks, expanding apprenticeship and other training opportunities for workers and moving toward universal access to pre-kindergarten.
Hayes is right to focus on workforce development as a key policy area, Rector said. But rather than a new committee structure, he said, lawmakers should limit the number of bills they introduce and use data to guide policymaking. They submitted nearly 1,600 bills in the first year of the last two-year session.
Hayes suggested lawmakers submit proposals with the 25 economic growth benchmarks used by the Maine Economic Growth Council in mind.
“If you really want to make a difference in Maine, here are the 25 leverage points,” she said. “Which of these benchmarks are you going to help move?”
Matthew Stone is the State House Bureau reporter for the BDN.