AUGUSTA — Longstanding regional tensions over Canadian loggers working Maine woodlots have become the latest political flash point for Augusta lawmakers.

Earlier this month Republican legislators rejected a bill that would penalize landowners for hiring foreign “bonded” laborers in harvesting operations. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans were poised to defeat another proposal that would award a $250 tax break for each Maine worker hired by tree harvesting companies.

Senate Republicans argue that the latest bill, LD 338, is largely symbolic and ineffective against some logging companies’ alleged exploitation of a federal program that allows them to hire Canadian labor if there are too few American workers.

But on Tuesday, GOP leadership unexpectedly tabled a vote despite having the numbers to defeat the measure.

The move followed a heated floor debate during which Democrats, for the second time this month, accused the GOP of abandoning their job-creation mandate to side with Canadian workers hired by companies taking advantage of subsidies within the state’s Tree Growth Tax program.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the sponsor of the two bills, said Republicans are nervous because they’re on the wrong side of the debate.

Jackson, a logger, has pursued the bonded labor issue for several years. He called GOP resistance to his proposals “bogus” and “hypocritical.”

“The thing is, the Republicans are all about the free market,” he said. “And here’s a perfect example of where they’re not letting the free market work because they’re using a government regulation to get cheaper workers.”

Other Democrats have echoed that sentiment, saying Republicans are essentially choosing subsidized foreign labor over jobs for unemployed Maine loggers.

Maine’s Tree Growth Tax program offers tax breaks on land managed for timber. Employers are permitted by the state and federal government to hire foreign laborers when they cannot fill jobs with U.S. workers.

Jackson said the program is exploited by some companies that use the federal H-2A program to hire Canadian labor because those workers don’t require health care or workers’ compensation insurance. Such services are provided by the Canadian government.

“These things stack up against the Maine worker,” Jackson said.

Republican lawmakers and the forest industry counter that Canadian workers are used only when there aren’t enough Mainers available to work in remote woodlots.

During a recent House debate over Jackson’s first proposal, Rep. Peter Rioux, R-Winterport, said “employers favored Canadian labor in the woods because, frankly, they’re more productive. They show up for work. It is closer to their home. They work harder. They complain less.”

In the same debate, Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, said that “the reality is bonded labor keeps the price of wood down, it keeps mills open and it keeps a market for people like my dad who sell wood.”

Jackson said the H-2A isn’t supposed to lower wages.

There’s been some indication that Republican leadership is concerned that the political aesthetics aren’t in their favor.

Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, acknowledged that the debate was turning into “something that’s an issue for the next campaign.”

Plowman defended her party’s stance on both bills. She said Jackson’s proposals would undoubtedly resound with his constituency, but that enforcing labor laws wasn’t the Legislature’s role.

“If they (timber companies) are doing illegal practices, then there are avenues that do not involve the Legislature,” she said. “There’s compassion for the issue, but when we’re giving out tax credits there has to be a bang for the buck.”

Regarding the allegations against companies illegally hiring foreign labor, Plowman added, “We can’t make laws by anecdote. We need proof.”

The issue of companies hiring Canadian labor is an old one. In 2009 Jackson led reporters on a tour of a northern township to illustrate that Canadian loggers were taking jobs from Mainers. One of the companies, A.D. Logging Inc., was being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office for violating state labor laws.

Last year A.D. and two other companies admitted violating the laws. Janet Mills, the AG at the time, said she expected more cases would come forward “because the importation of Canadian labor has had a devastating impact on American loggers and Maine workers in the northern Maine woods.”

Jackson’s bill penalizing companies for hiring Canadian labor is identical to a measure that passed the Legislature last year. Gov. John Baldacci’s originally threatened to veto the bill, but it was withdrawn after a compromise in which the administration promised to enforce penalties on Maine landowners or contractors who illegally avoided hiring Maine loggers.

Jackson said he reintroduced the bill this year because Gov. Paul LePage delayed hearings against two firms accused of violating the laws on the use of foreign loggers.

Jackson said Tuesday that the state and federal government haven’t deployed resources to enforce the laws. He added that other Republican proposals, including LD 1338, would weaken enforcement. 

Such proposals, he said, were submitted on behalf of the forest products industry, which was active in the 2010 election and the current lobbying session. 

According to Ethics Commission documents, the Maine Forest Products Council has spent $13,868 lobbying this session on an array of legislation, including both of Jackson’s proposals.

It’s political action committee contributed close to $10,000 to Democrat and Republican candidates and PACs in 2010.

J.D. Irving, who owns about 1.25 million acres of Maine timberland, has also been active this session. The forest harvesting outfit has spent $18,000 lobbying legislation this session, including both of Jackson’s bills.

“The industry has their Christmas tree lights on and they’re getting everything they can,” Jackson said.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, approached Jackson after the floor debate to see if the two sides could reach a compromise. Trahan, also a logger, said GOP resistance to the bills was all about fairness. 

“He has a narrow focus because the Canadian issue is an issue for the loggers in his district,” Trahan said. “But for everyone else in the state it could create a serious disadvantage.”

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