BRUNSWICK, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Monday made his latest pitch to shrink the power of labor unions in Maine when he offered details about the “Open for Business zones” proposal he introduced last month in his State of the State address.
LePage laid out his vision for the Open for Business zones during a presentation at Brunswick Landing, the former Navy air base that became available for civilian redevelopment in 2011. He framed a key component of his plan — that employees of companies in the zones will not be required to join labor unions — as an effort to ensure “payroll protection.”
He acknowledged that some tax breaks and other components of the zones already are available through existing programs, and that “the addition” is the proposed right-to-work status.
The Republican governor often has advocated that Maine become a right-to-work state, which would change the state’s law that allows unions to charge employees who choose not to join them a fee for being represented in collective bargaining. He has said that company officials looking to locate or expand in Maine have told him that Maine suffers competitively against southeastern states that have enacted right-to-work legislation.
“Investment capital goes where it’s welcome, and stays where it’s appreciated,” LePage said. “You’ve heard me say that many times, and it is the simple truth. … They want to go to a state where the state will work with them because they don’t want to spend the time fighting the government.”
The state also would offer training and recruitment assistance to companies in Open for Business zones. Firms benefiting from Open for Business zone incentives would be encouraged to hire Maine workers and buy materials or subcontracted services from Maine providers.
The language for legislation to create the Open for Business zones, which will be sponsored by Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, has been completed, but the bill has yet to be submitted to the Democrat-controlled Legislature for consideration, according to Doug Ray of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.
Democrats have staunchly opposed all efforts by LePage and Republican lawmakers to pass any form of right-to-work legislation in Maine. In a statement released Monday afternoon, Democrats in the Legislature said the zones would harm Maine workers.
“The question we have to ask is why does Gov. LePage want to lower the wages of Maine people,” Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said in the release. “The governor may call this right-to-work but I call it right to work for less. All this does is give CEOs the right to pay workers less and deny them access to health care and retirement.”
Brunswick Landing and the former Loring Air Force base in Limestone would be the first two areas that LePage hopes would benefit from Open for Business designation, which is designed to offer incentives for large companies to come to Maine.
Ray said the zones follow the model of existing Pine Tree Development zones introduced by LePage’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, which initially offered tax breaks and incentives for businesses that located in economically troubled areas, but spread to the entire state as the business climate worsened in the late 2000s.
Open for Business zones would expand on the benefits of those zones to offer more workforce training and additional corporate tax credits. The bill also would allow businesses access to a pool of up to $500 million in bond funding from the Finance Authority of Maine.
The zones would offer the benefits to businesses that invest at least $50 million and create 1,500 jobs. Those businesses also would be eligible for discounted electricity rates, employment tax benefits and increased access to capital.
Maine has 13 businesses that employ at least 1,501 people, according to the latest Department of Labor information.
Also included in the bill, a 20-year corporate income tax incentive would include a 100 percent income tax credit for the first 10 years and a 50 percent credit for years 11 to 20.
LePage said right-to-work states are “getting all the jobs.”
Asked if he has spoken to specific businesses interested in relocating to Maine, LePage said there are “a couple of opportunities” that are “quite a distant potential.”
“While everyone is debating the minimum wage, I want to debate a career wage,” he said Monday. “You can take the minimum wage and go do what you can do and flip your hamburgers and you’ll do just fine. It’s a great entry job but I think career jobs … are more important for our Maine people, and it’s high time we start paying attention to them.”
When asked about potential challenges to the constitutionality of the right-to-work component of his proposal, LePage said “a process to prove that” exists.
Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said Monday that the proposed bill is “a bad gimicky idea that will hurt Maine families” and “a ploy to move people into part-time positions, weaken health and safety protections and pay people less.”
“The average worker makes $1,500 less per year in right-to-work states,” he said. “I cannot for the life of me understand why Gov. LePage would want to lower Maine workers’ pay by $1,500.”
When asked Monday if the administration could open a state office in an Open for Business zone to exempt state employees from paying a union service fee, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said, “The administration is not looking to do that,” but she did not categorically say no.
“We’re looking to focus on the private sector, so that’s something that would not be a focus of this particular administration,” she said. “The reason for this bill is to bring in more jobs to the state.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story carried an inaccurate headline, "LePage touts Open for Business zones, where workers would not be required to join unions." Under federal law, workers are not required to join unions.