House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, arrives in the chamber after being re-elected to her leadership post in December 2018. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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Good morning from Augusta. The push for a paid family leave program from House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, formally kicks off today in the Legislature and it’s shaping up to be a harder sell to Republicans in the Legislature — if Democrats want to bring them along.

Gideon sold her proposal at a Friday morning news conference during a hearing in the labor committee. It would provide 12 weeks of paid family leave or 20 weeks of medical leave to Maine employees, funding that with a 0.55 percent tax on wages over $12,000, though Gideon now agrees with an analysis for proponents that said a 0.75 percent tax would be needed.

It is the speaker’s main policy push of the 2019 session as she considers a run against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican. However, it comes on the heels of a compromise deal on regular paid leave and will prove to be a harder sell largely because of tax implications.

Business groups are signaling opposition to Gideon’s bill after playing ball with Democrats on a paid sick leave bill. Early in this legislative session, business groups put out an olive branch to Democrats looking to pass a paid sick leave mandate in Maine. This week, that bill transformed into a paid leave program that would guarantee employees 40 hours of leave per year at businesses with more than 10 employees and is tracking for bipartisan support.

There was one main impetus for negotiations on that — a referendum threat from the Maine People’s Alliance. Gideon’s bill doesn’t have that and it would set up a new program applying to any employee who works 26 weeks or more for any employer over the course of a year.

Four states and Washington, D.C., have paid family leave programs now, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and all of them are funded similarly to how Gideon proposes to fund this. Maine has a family leave law guaranteeing 10 weeks of leave in any two-year period at employers with 15 or more workers at one location.

Gideon has said that choices between working and caring for children or sick relatives are “a decision no one should have to make.” In testimony at the hearing on Friday, Thomas O’Connor of Portland, said his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010, which led him to retire three years early in 2014 to care for her and that the bill could have allowed him to continue working. 

Caregiving is very costly, costly not just in dollars, but in the physical and emotional toll that it can have in the caregiver, he said.

But business groups are signaling opposition and legislative Republicans had it on a list of “bad bills” from Democrats at a news conference on Friday. The Maine Republican Party called for a “smart compromise.” Opponents of the bill on Friday included the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Hospitality Maine. Insurers also advocated for a private alternative to the state program.

Peter Gore, a lobbyist for the chamber, said his group would oppose it because it would effectively preempt leave programs already administered by businesses, add to Maine’s tax burden and be “administratively burdensome for the majority of small businesses in this state” that would have to replace workers. He said his group would support a study of the issue like the one vetoed by former Gov. Paul LePage last year.

It’s unclear where Gov. Janet Mills stands, too. Her spokesman told the Portland Press Herald in January that the Democratic governor shares Gideon’s goal of providing paid family leave, but she has also pledged not to raise taxes in her first budget proposal. We may learn more about her stance at today’s hearing.

None of this would necessarily keep Democrats from passing the program, which would be far-reaching. Of course, Democrats control the Legislature and don’t need one Republican vote to pass this, though Mills and other Democrats have shown so far that they often prefer bipartisan proposals.

The study for proponents of Gideon’s bill — from former State Economist Michael LeVert — said the proposal would apply to 84 percent of resident employees and estimated that 32,000 of them would use it annually. About three-quarters of them would be women and Cumberland and York counties would contribute 5 percent more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

CorrectionAn earlier version of this item misstated the time of the hearing and the payroll tax amount in Gideon’s bill.

Today in A-town

Apart from the family and maternity leave bills, Friday’s legislative calendar is light. Other proposals up for consideration in committee today include a few in the Health and Human Services Committee to strengthen the behavioral services workforce, and increase access to those services for youth and at Cumberland County Jail.

Proposals to increase access to locally sourced and nutritious foods in Maine schools, as well as reduce food waste by giving it to local food banks or donating it to community organizations will be vetted in the education committee. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold a public hearing on another bill that seeks to set up a prescription drug take-back program requiring drug manufacturers to properly dispose of leftover or unwanted prescriptions. Find the full legislative schedule here.

Meanwhile, the governor will be celebrating the New England Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl victory with the Lombardi Trophy and Augusta native Derek Rivers, whose two-year tenure on the team has been marred by injuries. The visit marks a significant departure from her predecessor, who was not a fan of the team or its ownership.

Reading list

— One member of Maine’s congressional delegation found troubling information in the Mueller report as others offered guarded initial responses. On Thursday, Attorney General William Barr released a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings from his investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said the report revealed “ numerous examples of reckless judgment” by President Donald Trump. In a prepared statement, King also criticized Barr for the way he had framed the report in earlier presentations. Other members of the delegation said they wanted to read the report more thoroughly before offering reaction. Read the redacted report here. For analysis and national reaction, click here.

— Goodbye Columbus: Maine is about to change the name of an October holiday. The Maine Senate on Thursday gave final passage to a bill that will change the name of the holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Mills is expected to sign the bill, which would make Maine the eighth state to officially shift the focus of the holiday from the Italian explorer to the people who already inhabited the continent he “discovered.” The federal government still observes Columbus Day.

— An ongoing effort to ban conversion therapy in Maine took a big step forward on Thursday. The Legislature’s health coverage and insurance committee strongly endorsed an amended bill from Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, that would bar most certified licensed professionals from using the controversial method of therapy on anyone in Maine younger than 18. It would also prohibit the use of MaineCare to pay for it. Conversion therapy is a largely discredited method of therapy used to try and change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. At least 15 states have passed similar measures. LePage vetoed a similar bill from Fecteau last year, but after all but two Republicans on the committee voted to recommend the bill Thursday and with a new Democratic governor, its chances for passage are strong.

— Overdose deaths claimed almost one Mainer per day last year. The total number of overdose deaths in 2018 dropped to 354 from 417 the previous year, but state officials continue to characterize drug-related deaths as a crisis, with Mills saying “the opioid epidemic still presents a serious public health threat to our state.” The majority of drug overdoses — 80 percent — were fueled by opioids, often in combination with other drugs or alcohol, according to a report released Thursday by the attorney general’s office.

— A Maine hospital employee mistakenly released personal information on 300 patients. But the confidential information was sent to a Bangor Daily News editor, who destroyed the emailed files. Upon realizing the error and conducting an internal investigation, Scott Oxley, president of Northern Light Acadia Hospital determined that the misfired email was an “isolated” accident that resulted from human error, not a systemic problem with how the hospital secures confidential patient information.

Turn that smile upside down

A recently released Penn State study posits that people who have to fake or force smiles while on the job are far more likely to be heavy drinkers after work.

My first thought was: Why wait until after work? But then I curled the ends of my lips upward and got back to editing.

Selfishly, these findings are good news for me. I usually work alone, so there’s no need to plaster a fake smile onto my face during the majority of my work experience. I do sometimes work at the State House — a breeding ground for fake smiles — and I am occasionally called to the home office for meetings, but all the smiles I toss out there are genuine. I swear.

Otherwise, my approach to my job — which involves lots of solitary swearing, grimacing and sputtering — seems healthy, at least according to the topline results of this study. But then I read the fine print and learned that the study also indicates that employees who have to “suppress negative emotions or urges such as rolling their eyes” were also heavier drinkers.

Pass me that bottle. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...