Right-to-work legislation fizzles as GOP shifts to passage of bipartisan budget

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AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage told a national news organization in February that Republican lawmakers were bracing for a Wisconsin-style fight with unions.

But following the passage of a divisive health insurance bill, it appears LePage and Republican leaders are prepared to abandon that battle to focus on the passage of a $6.1 billion biennial budget.

GOP leaders this week pulled two bills out of committee that would have made Maine a so-called “right-to-work” state by prohibiting unions from charging nonunion workers a fee for representing them in contract and grievance negotiations.

Labor advocates and unions described the legislation as a politically motivated assault designed to bleed organized labor of financial resources.

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But the GOP leadership’s decision to pull the legislation from committee without a public hearing indicates that right-to-work isn’t a Republican priority this session.

Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the majority whip in the House of Representatives said Tuesday that although right-to-work was worthy of an “honest and fair discussion,” leadership did not want to hinder passage of the budget with another bitter partisan battle.

Cushing said leadership did not want raucous protests in the State House as witnessed in Capitol buildings in Wisconsin and Ohio.

“We don’t want that here in Maine,” Cushing said. “Well, some people might want that, but not enough to pass (right-to-work).”

Cushing also indicated that Republicans were wary of further alienating Democrats whose support will be needed to pass a budget with a two-thirds majority to avoid a government shutdown.  

“The reality is June 15 is coming and we really don’t want to stay here past June 15,” Cushing said.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn the session June 15.

Cushing hinted that Republicans aren’t interested in further enraging Democrats who are still smarting from the GOP’s fast-tracked health insurance overhaul.

Last week, the political fight over the insurance bill engulfed the Appropriations Committee. The late-night quarrel prompted Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, the Republican co-chairman, to submit his resignation over concerns that the rhetoric would hamper the panel’s work in reaching a compromise with Democrats on the state spending plan.

Flood withdrew his resignation, but not before warning colleagues on both sides of the aisle that “nonpartisan empowering behaviors and teamwork are essential” to passing the budget.

Democrats said that the apparent fizzling of the right-to-work bill showed that such legislation doesn’t have a place in Maine.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Republicans were using the budget process as a “smokescreen” to explain their abandonment of the right-to-work bills.

“I think they don’t have the votes,” Alfond said. “I think Mainers, especially elected Mainers here, recognize that … this (legislation) is something that’s been imported to Maine. This isn’t a problem here.”

House Minority Leader Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said the legislation has “no place here.”

Matt Schlobohm, public policy director for the Maine AFL-CIO, agreed. He said the bills were “toxic” and that most Maine Republicans had little appetite to make them a priority.

“We’ve been hearing for a while now that legislators in both parties don’t have much of an interest in pursuing these bills,” he said. “I think we haven’t had a clear answer on what their exit strategy is, but we’ve heard that they’re not a priority, they do nothing to create jobs. It’s much more about a national agenda to erode workers’ rights.”

LePage appears prepared to acquiesce to leadership’s decision.

“Quite frankly, what’s a priority to me right now is the budget,” he said.

smistler@sunjournal.com

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