Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the press in Portland on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly all Democrats in the Maine Legislature support a new paid family and medical leave proposal, but Gov. Janet Mills remains silent as the drive to push the idea through the State House kicks off.

The Democratic governor may be the central figure in the paid leave effort. Progressive groups plan to take the issue to referendum in 2024 if lawmakers do not address the topic themselves, but business groups that Mills has met with in recent weeks show no signs of embracing the legislation.

The two champions of the bill, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, and Assistant House Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, told reporters on Monday that Mills has been among the more than 500 people and businesses they have met with over several months for feedback on the legislation.

Cloutier added she thinks Mills “is in favor of paid family medical leave broadly” but “the devil is in the details.”

“We know that she’s reviewing it and looking at it, and we’ve been grateful for the conversations we have going from there,” Daughtry said.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on paid leave after the two lawmakers held a news conference ahead of a Thursday public hearing on the measure, which would put Maine among 13 states that offer versions of paid leave.

Most are funded by payroll taxes like the one proposed to fund Maine’s program. The maximum payroll tax to help pay for the program 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 companies above the 15-person threshold would have job protections under the Daughtry-Cloutier plan, while the initial proposal said those at smaller companies would not.

Progressive groups including the Maine Women’s Lobby had criticized that change, which breaks from the recommendations of a state commission and the referendum version. But Daughtry and Cloutier said Monday an amendment will protect employees at companies with fewer than 15 workers unless their employer applies for an “undue hardship” exemption.

It would allow workers at public and private companies to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave, with weekly benefits capped at the state’s average weekly wage. Part-time and full-time workers must contribute over $6,200, or six times the state weekly average wage, to become eligible for paid leave under the amended plan.

The proposal follows the commission’s broad definition of “family” to include children, parents, grandchildren, grandparents, siblings or “de facto” versions of those relationships, along with spouses and all others sharing “a significant personal bond” with the Mainer taking leave.

Payroll taxes to fund the paid leave program would start in January 2025, while benefits would begin in May 2026. The paid leave proposals eyed by the commission would cost a minimum of $266 million in their first year. There is no fiscal estimate available, but Cloutier and Daughtry said their bill has reined in the cost of the program.

Peter Gore, a lobbyist for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, has said he and others had a series of meetings with the Democratic governor before the paid leave bill was released, citing concerns that include absenteeism at small firms and whether the program will have solid financial footing under the exemptions. He said Mills shared some business concerns.

Democrats have found enough votes to get the plan to Mills’ desk, according to the list of cosponsors. In the 151-member House, 77 of their members have signed onto the bill along with 23 members of the Senate, including Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, the only member of his party to publicly back the idea.

The only three Democratic legislators who have not signed on as cosponsors to the bill are Reps. Scott Landry of Farmington, Jim Dill of Old Town and Tavis Hasenfus of Readfield. Hasenfus did not respond to a request for comment, while Dill and Landry each said they are waiting to see what comes out of the committee.

“It is going to be an expensive project,” Landry added. “I’m just worried about small business people.”

Citing the referendum push and polling that has shown strong support in Maine for paid leave, Daughtry said it is an idea that is going to happen, although questions remain about how the deal will be made in Augusta.

“I’m the most optimistic I’ve ever been with this policy,” she said. “We’ve looked at it seven ways to Sunday.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an outdated reference to wage caps under the paid leave proposal from two lawmakers.

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Billy Kobin

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...