AUGUSTA, Maine — A paid leave proposal circulating in the Maine Legislature is drawing objections from business groups and progressives pushing a referendum on the issue.
The early tone of the debate highlights the careful balance needed to get a bill through the Democratic-controlled State House on paid family and medical leave. Maine would join 11 other states that have similar insurance programs and fund them with payroll taxes.
A state commission began studying the issue in 2021 and released recommendations last year that have formed the basis for a new proposal from two top Democrats. But it remains less sweeping than a version that liberal groups are trying to get on the 2024 ballot. That referendum is all but certain to happen if those interests are not satisfied with the legislative result.
It is making for tense talks. Gov. Janet Mills has been publicly silent even though she met with business groups on the issue, and one lobbyist said she shared some of their concerns. Neither business groups nor referendum backers were involved in crafting the bill that will be aired publicly this week. One of its two main champions called it a balanced approach.
“Really, we want to make sure that we have a program crafted for Mainers, by Mainers, because we have unique demographics,” Assistant Maine Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, said. “We have a different economy.”
The paid leave proposals eyed by the commission would cost a minimum of $266 million in their first year. The new bill from Daughtry and Assistant House Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, tweaks many of the commission’s recommendations to rein in the program.
The bill retains the commission’s broad definition of a “family member” whom Mainers would be eligible for state-funded leave to care for. It includes children, parents, grandchildren, grandparents, siblings or “de facto” versions of those relationships. It includes spouses and all others sharing “a significant personal bond” with the Mainer taking leave.
Up to 12 weeks of leave would be allowed per year with benefits capped at Maine’s average weekly wage, down from the commission’s proposal. The maximum payroll tax would be 1 percent, split evenly between employers and employees except at companies with fewer than 15 employees. Those employers would be exempt from paying their half of the taxes.
Workers at firms with 15 or more workers would be protected from losing jobs if they take leave. Those at smaller ones would not, although they could still take leave. Payroll taxes to capitalize the paid leave fund would start in January 2025, while benefits would begin in May 2026.
Destie Hohman Sprague, the executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, one of the groups boosting the referendum, said the lack of comprehensive job protections and other changes make it more likely that the program could be privatized.
She noted that the Mills administration had a representative from the Maine Department of Labor on the paid leave commission and that negotiations involving a wide group of interests including advocates could have begun much sooner, though she stopped short of saying the referendum would proceed if the legislative plan passed as is.
“I know that our sponsors have negotiated in good faith, and I expect the committee and legislative leadership will negotiate in good faith,” Hohman Sprague said.
Mills’ role in the talks is shadowy for now. Her administration did not respond to questions about the Daughtry bill, but Peter Gore, a lobbyist for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said before the measure was released that he and others had a series of meetings with the Democratic governor that ended a few weeks ago. He was reviewing the bill on Friday.
A main concern is absenteeism at smaller firms, Gore said. The bill would go past Maine’s current Family Medical Leave Act, which allows unpaid leave in certain situations but exempts those with fewer than 15 employees. However, Gore noted that carving them out would bring up another set of concerns about putting the program on solid financial footing.
“Whether it happens here or whether it happens at the ballot box, it has to be workable for the business community,” he said.
Paid leave is a priority for legislative leaders, who allowed Daughtry and Cloutier to get an unlimited number of sponsors for their bill. On Friday, Daughtry said 94 lawmakers had signed on and that she is planning question-and-answer sessions with lawmakers and media.
She noted strong support for family leave in Maine, including one University of New Hampshire poll in February that found 73 percent support for the idea, although the question did not mention how it would be funded and Republicans have been skeptical. But Daughtry said a legislative solution would be more responsive to different constituencies.
“If we’re not listening to everyone, it’s not the right way,” she said.