Members of the Maine Legislature. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

Advocates for a sweeping paid family and medical leave program in Maine are coming to the State House on Tuesday to rally supporters and brief lawmakers on two proposals.

It is the symbolic kickoff of policy talks expected to be complicated. For one, the supporters have a potential trump card in a referendum they are trying to get on the 2023 ballot. 

If their effort gets the signatures needed to qualify, Mainers will vote on a plan from progressive groups including the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Women’s Lobby. But a legislative commission has also come up with a similar and potentially more progressive proposal that it outlined in a Tuesday report.

The political case: These advocates think they have a political winner. Polling conducted for them in October from Pan Atlantic Research found 70 percent support across Maine’s electorate for such a program, including 57 percent of those planning to vote for former Gov. Paul LePage, the Republican who lost to Gov. Janet Mills in November. A majority wanted the plan mostly funded by employers.

Only 11 states offer these kinds of insurance programs, including Massachusetts. The kind of program we are talking about would be a big one. Cost estimates prepared for the legislative commission last year suggest both iterations would cost more than $400 million per year. The referendum version would be funded by new payroll taxes with businesses with more than 15 employees and their workers evenly splitting a 0.86 percent tax.

The governor’s role: Mills opened her tenure by negotiating a grand bargain on paid leave that united progressives and business interests by requiring employers with more than 10 workers to provide at least 40 hours of leave per year. Many expect the Democratic governor to be heavily involved in these talks as well, though she does not appear to be yet. She has pledged to not raise taxes, although not engaging on the topic could simply leave it to voters to do so.

What they agree on: Possible political inevitabilities are spinning the business lobby into action. On at least one thing, they agree with Destie Hohman Sprague, the executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, who said Monday that she would prefer a legislative solution on the issue so the parties are bound together for staying power.

“If we can get a bipartisan solution out of the Legislature, that’s something we can all feel really good about,” she said.

When asked how the business lobby could keep negotiations on track in the Legislature, Peter Gore, a lobbyist aligned with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said if he knew, he would be “the smartest guy in Augusta.”

But he said it was important for his side to stay engaged on it, calling it the marquee policy conversation in the State House this year. In the end, he nodded to the fact that the paid leave advocates would have to be satisfied with any solution.

“The question is: Does it pass muster with the people who are proposing the ballot initiative?'” he said of a potential compromise. “It’s complicated, because the Legislature could pass something and somebody could say, ‘Well, that’s not enough.'”

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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...