Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, listens to debate at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Top Republicans in the Maine Legislature on Tuesday criticized a push for a sweeping paid family and medical leave program.

It promises to be one of the highest-profile items debated in the State House this year and is moving along two tracks. Supporters are trying to get a referendum on the 2023 ballot that would put Maine among 11 other states to start this kind of publicly funded insurance program. Meanwhile, a state commission is set to deliver its recommended version to the Democratic-led Legislature.

If lawmakers do not act — or pass a watered-down version that fails to satisfy supporters — voters could still pass the referendum. The major question is whether minority Republicans will attempt to negotiate a deal to head that off, and they looked reluctant to do so on Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, criticized “abuse” of the referendum process on an issue he said is best left to lawmakers. The top House Republican on the health insurance panel decried the effects of new payroll taxes on businesses and consumers.

“To now add another brand-new mandate on top of it, it’s just not the right time,” said Rep. Joshua Morris of Turner.

Their comments came on the same day that the legislative commission on paid leave released a long-awaited report and backers of the referendum effort — led by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance and Maine Women’s Lobby — rallied supporters at the State House.

Both versions are expected to cost more than $400 million per year, according to estimates prepared for the legislative commission. The referendum version would allow Maine workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave at a time or 16 weeks per year for circumstances including a child’s birth or taking care of family members.

It would be funded by a new tax on wages. At businesses with 15 or more employees, employers and workers would evenly split a 0.86 percent tax to pay for the program, adding up to roughly $430 per year for someone making $50,000. Businesses with fewer than 15 employees would not pay the employer portion, but employees would pay their half.

Advocates for such a program argue there are more costs for inaction. AARP Maine, which is supporting this year’s drive, estimated there were 181,000 family caregivers in the state providing $2.2 billion worth of care annually to family members in 2017.

Use of such a program could rise sharply over the next two decades. Maine is the nation’s oldest state by median age, and people 65 and older are expected to make up nearly 32 percent of the population here by 2038 — nearly double the population’s share from 2010.

“None of us are getting any younger. Our parents aren’t getting any younger,” Assistant House Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, who co-chaired the commission, told supporters on Tuesday. “And so at some point, we’re all going to need this type of program.”

The business lobby is watching the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills closely on this subject. The Democratic governor bound those interests and progressives together by negotiating a watered-down paid leave mandate in 2019 that came out of another referendum push.

Mills pledged not to raise taxes during her campaign last year, and her office did not answer a Tuesday question about whether this would amount to a violation of that. Those on both sides of the debate expect the governor to try to negotiate a compromise.

There is some danger for Republicans in not engaging. Before voters passed a 2016 referendum hiking Maine’s hourly minimum wage from $9 to $12 and indexing it to inflation, business interests coalesced behind smaller increases in an effort to head off such a hike. Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Paul LePage did not bite.

Stewart said his caucus would have internal conversations about how to engage on the topic, but Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, who also co-chaired the commission, said she hoped that lawmakers and not voters would solve the problem.

“I think the best work is done in these halls,” she said.

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...