AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s best-known labor Democrat on Thursday held up a bill aiming to keep a state call center in Wilton open in a feud with a local lawmaker who questioned the constitutionality of a logging bill scuttled by a federal judge this week.
The move from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was notable because it puts him at odds with the major state employees’ union, a Democratic-aligned group that has united with the largely Republican legislative delegation from Franklin County to criticize the planned closure of a state call center that employs roughly 45 people.
On Thursday, Jackson and fellow Democratic legislative leaders delayed the introduction of a bill from Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, that would block the closure. That was after Black said Jackson told Republican leaders that he would not back the bill if Black sponsored it.
“It’s too bad that you let personal feelings interfere with the work of the state and citizens of the communities and state employees,” Black said.
The disagreement between the two stems from a letter that Black co-wrote to Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office last summer asking for his opinion on a Jackson-sponsored bill to prevent foreign truck drivers from hauling logs in Maine. Black voted against an initial version but supported the one that passed without Gov. Janet Mills’ signature.
The law was halted this week by a U.S. District Court judge who deemed it unconstitutional. Frey responded in September that his office found potential legal issues with the bill but that it would ultimately be up to courts to decide on it.
That letter infuriated Jackson, Black said. After Maine logging interests sued the state over the law last October, the top Democrat sent a text message to Black, a farmer and logger, insinuating that he wrote the letter for personal gain.
“When I see you I will convey what I think of you in person,” Jackson said.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, did not confirm whether Jackson explicitly said he would not back the bill if Black sponsored it. But he said Jackson was clearly upset about Black’s letter and believed “he’s going to have a hard time” backing the bill.
At the meeting, Jackson said there was work being done on Black’s measure before he moved to table it. Democrats backed that move in a 6-3 vote, with Republicans opposing it.
On Thursday, Jackson spokesperson Christine Kirby referred to that reasoning. She said Republicans’ characterizations of Jackson’s motivations should be taken with “a grain of salt” in an election year. She did not dispute their claims when asked directly about them.
The Mills administration told workers that it was closing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services call center in Wilton in January. It opened in 2019 after a Barclays call center that employed 200 people left town. While it initially helped sign Mainers up for Medicaid expansion, it assisted in contact tracing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The department argued that the space was small and insufficient, saying employees there would be able to telework or take jobs in Farmington or Lewiston offices. This week, department spokesperson Jackie Farwell said officials met with local lawmakers to explore other locations or whether problems with the call center could be addressed to keep the employees.
Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, who was present at the meeting, said the state is now discussing with the landlord of the current building whether the lease can be renegotiated.
Maine Service Employees Association spokesperson Jeff McCabe, a former House majority leader and Jackson ally, said he was shocked that Democrats delayed the measure on Thursday, saying it could serve as a safeguard as the Mills administration explores options.
“These workers have been through so much, and there continues to be a great deal of uncertainty for them,” he said, referring to the call center workers. “They were really hoping a bill would move forward.”