Assistant Maine Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, speaks at an abortion-rights rally in Portland's Monument Square on Nov. 1, 2022, alongside U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine's 1st District. A measure to provide paid family leave championed by Daughtry cleared a key Senate hurdle on Wednesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate advanced a high-profile bill on Wednesday to create a program providing workers with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave over opposition from Republicans and business groups.

It was one of the farthest-reaching measures put before lawmakers in 2023, coming after a coalition of progressive groups gathered signatures to put paid leave on the ballot. They delayed their push until next year, putting the Legislature under the gun to make a deal.

The product from Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, and Assistant House Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, was first unveiled in May. It has gone through several changes after the sponsors talked for months with businesses and advocates, but business groups including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce still oppose it.

The Democratic-led Senate voted 22-12 for the bill along party lines on Wednesday. It faces further votes in both chambers, then lawmakers must allocate funding for the program before it goes to Gov. Janet Mills. She had early concerns but is now signaling that she may approve it.

The number of states offering some form of paid family and medical leave has grown this year to 16 along with Washington, D.C. Maine is the only state in New England not to approve some form of paid leave. Daughtry noted on the Senate floor that virtually all countries have it.

“Maine has a proud tradition of not waiting for D.C. politicians to act,” Daughtry said. “But on this, we’re not only behind the world, but we’re behind the rest of New England.”

The key player on the bill will be Mills, a Democrat. She outlined several concerns in May that matched those of the business community, but she has been silent since then. Ben Goodman, her spokesperson, said Wednesday she is encouraged by changes made to it.

The bill would cap a maximum 12 weeks of paid leave at the state’s average weekly wage, which will rise above $1,100 starting July 1. Sponsors have said $12 million will be needed immediately to start the program. There is no current estimate of how much the program will cost annually when fully implemented. An earlier version was pegged at $387 million.

A 1 percent payroll tax to fund the program would be split between employees and employers, with the program starting in January 2025 and benefits in May 2026.

That has been a main sticking point for Republicans, as well as a loose definition of the family members whom Mainers could take leave to care for. It runs from parents and children to “de facto” relatives as well as anyone else sharing “a significant personal bond” with the person taking leave.

“We’re going to be layering another tax on top of already some of the highest-taxed people in America,” Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said.

Companies with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt from paying into the program, with job protections not offered for workers at the smaller firms if their employers apply for an “undue hardship” exemption.

Employees could take leave for a variety of reasons, such as the birth, adoption or fostering of a child, supporting a sick or dying loved one, recovery from surgery or other health challenges and managing urgent safety needs if they or family members are domestic violence victims.

The changes that made it through a committee included a requirement that employees give “reasonable notice” to their employers of their intent to take paid leave under most circumstances and clarifying that job protections for workers at any-sized firm would not kick in until 120 days after an employee starts working there.

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 plan from Daughtry and Cloutier.

Democrats have cited the referendum as well as a University of New Hampshire poll of Maine earlier this year that found majority support for paid leave. But that question did not cover how the plan would be funded. Several Republicans said Maine should follow the lead of New Hampshire, which blends family medical leave insurance with business tax credits.

One Republican, Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford, was struggling with his vote until Wednesday. He was his party’s lone co-sponsor on the bill, but said on the floor he now opposes it over concerns about a high wage replacement rate and because the tax split between employers and employees is “a bit out of alignment with other states.”

“The people of Maine will benefit from a good family and medical leave plan if it’s done right, done cautiously and done compassionately,” Bennett said.

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...