AUGUSTA — A bill that's being heralded as "first-of-its-kind" legislation aimed at closing the state's so-called "skills gap" easily cleared the Maine Senate on Wednesday.
The bill, LD 90 — the work of a special committee of the Legislature — was rolled out last week and broadly praised as a bipartisan solution to a problem many say is key to moving the state's economy forward.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously on a voice vote and likely will move to the Maine House for consideration Thursday.
The bill has not only gained wide bipartisan support but also the support of both organized labor and the business community.
Among other things, the measure revitalizes the Maine Apprenticeship Program, a partnership between the state and about 150 businesses. The program couples on-the-job training with formal education programs and provides up to 50 percent tuition reimbursement for qualified applicants.
Its aim is to allow workers to gain the skills and education they need to advance while continuing full-time employment.
The bill seemingly has broad support in the Legislature and its authors say they've worked with Gov. Paul LePage's office to craft the measure — workforce development has been an important focus of LePage's administration — but the governor's office has remained relatively quiet on the legislation.
LePage's senior economic adviser, John Butera, said the bill is complex and has a lot of moving parts that the governor's office wants to fully understand before it offers an endorsement or criticism of the bill.
Butera said the governor's office was supportive of the bipartisan nature of the bill, but was reserving judgment on the bill's merits. The measure is expected to cost the state an estimated $5 million to $6 million. That so-called "fiscal note" will be something the governor's office will want to consider carefully, Butera said.
Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, one of the bill's chief authors, said Wednesday he was optimistic the bill would garner the governor's support.
"This bill is not about either party claiming credit; it's about the businesses and workers of Maine. It's about moving the economy forward," Goodall said. "We've been very appreciative of the governor's administration working with us to date, as well as the daily appearance of his departments participating in the committee."
Goodall said the focus was on the common goal of "improving the skills of Mainers." He said the bill includes a cost that is aimed largely at expanding key community college programs, particularly in the area of precision machining.
He said the bill aims to reduce the waiting lists for programs that train people for other in-demand jobs, including nursing programs. According to testimony on the bill, there is a backlog of more than 4,000 students waiting to get into programs that would provide them with skills to gain employment or improve their wages, Goodall said.
Other parts of the bill bring training and retraining programs to rural residents or into the workplace of small businesses, which cannot afford training programs to upgrade their workers' skills.
"It's very challenging for individuals to leave their daily life and go to college," Goodall said. He said workers often need only a little extra training to update skills, "if they've been laid off, for no fault of their own or if they are moving into a new career."
Other key components of the bill are:
* A new credit transfer program for the the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System.
* New financial assistance for more than 1,000 people who started degree programs but left school before earning a degree.
* A new pilot program through Portland Adult Education that will work in cooperation with Lewiston Adult Education to create a "Welcome Center" aimed at helping foreign-trained professionals get the training they need to use their existing skills to find adequate employment in Maine.
Republican leaders have said they would support the bill, and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, told a Wednesday gathering of business groups at the Capitol that he would deliver the bill to LePage's desk.
“You might find divisiveness elsewhere in the Legislature, but not here,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “Our work was truly a collaborative effort, and the result is something that Democrats and Republicans can be proud of."