AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to create Open for Business zones to attract economic development and jobs to Maine likely would breeze through the Legislature if it weren’t for the fact that it includes a “right-to-work” provision that there is little appetite for in the State House.
Right-to-work refers to laws that bar labor unions from requiring workers to pay dues. Making Maine a right-to-work state has been at the center of LePage’s aspirations since he came into office, and in 2012 he even went so far as calling his inability to do so his greatest failure as governor. LePage-sponsored right-to-work legislation failed in 2011, when LePage had Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, and again in 2013.
House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said the most recent proposal won’t see any more support this year than it has in the past.
“These proposals didn’t even pass when the governor’s own party was in control [in the Legislature],” said Berry. “If the governor thinks this will fly in a Democratic Legislature, then he’s not thinking clearly, to put it mildly. This appears to be an election stunt and not a very serious policy proposal.”
That hasn’t deterred the governor, who on Monday traveled to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station — which is widely considered to be one of the most attractive pieces of commercial real estate in Maine — to continue his right-to-work push. He responded to critics who say the initiative would lead to lower salaries by arguing that the point is to bring in jobs that are higher-paying to begin with.
“While everyone is debating the minimum wage, I want to debate a career wage,” said LePage. “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.”
In order to receive the proposed financial benefits in LePage’s plan, companies would have to invest at least $50 million and create at least 1,500 jobs. Attracting any companies of that size would be a boon for a state where there are only 13 businesses that employ more than 1,500 people, according to Maine Department of Labor data from October 2013. All of the businesses on that list have been in Maine for decades.
LePage often has said there is a strong correlation between states with right-to-work legislation and their recent success in attracting jobs. Charles Scontras, a labor movement historian and research associate with the University of Maine’s Bureau of Labor and Education, said it’s not that simple.
“That’s a very controversial statement [LePage] makes,” said Scontras. “The issue goes back a long way. … In an unregulated economic system, the first casualties are small businesses and workers.”
A research paper produced by the university’s Bureau of Labor and Education showed that in 2009, median weekly earnings for both individual workers and families in free-bargaining states were more than 13 percent higher than in right-to-work states. The paper also stated that evidence linking right-to-work states with robust job creation is “inconsistent.”
Scontras said it wasn’t too many years ago when leaders from both parties would have rejected right-to-work out of hand.
“It seems that this is about striking another blow to unions and simultaneously weaken the Democratic Party, which is often synonymous with organized labor. I find it very difficult to disconnect [LePage’s] statements from the larger crusade to just simply nail labor to the wall.”
University of Maine at Farmington political science professor James Melcher said Tuesday that aside from the merits of the actual proposal, he sees LePage’s crusade for right-to-work as a campaign move.
“There’s no way it’s going to happen this year,” said Melcher of bringing right-to-work to Maine. “He’s saying, ‘this is where I’d like to go next year with a friendlier Legislature.’ He’s trying to offer a contrast between himself and the other candidates. … This is something we’ve seen from a lot of other Republican governors across the country.”
However, Melcher said the fact that LePage is limiting his proposal to Brunswick Landing and the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone might suggest that he is hopeful for success.
“Saying it’s a pilot program, that makes a lot of sense, but I don’t see anything that has these kind of right-to-work components being successful,” said Melcher. “If he really wanted to get [the Open for Business zones] legislation done, I think there are a lot of things in there that the Democrats would be willing to talk to him about.”
John Butera, LePage’s senior economic adviser, said whether Maine is a right-to-work state is a key question for companies considering coming here, along with questions about electricity costs, which LePage also addresses in the Open for Business zones bill.
“We’re not preventing anybody from joining a union; this is giving people the right to choose,” said Butera. “We’ve been really consistent about believing that this is a policy direction we want to go in. One of the complaints we hear is that right-to-work is a race to the bottom, but the type of project we’re trying to attract here has very significant wages and very significant benefits.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the bill, which as of Tuesday afternoon had not been published, was an attempt to compromise with Democrats.
“This is a jobs bill and we want the Democrats to be on board with it,” she said. “If Democrats and Republicans alike are serious about bringing more opportunities and prosperity to Mainers, then this bill will go through and it will go through quickly. It’s not a matter of politics. It’s about being able to bring more good-paying careers to Mainers.”