AUGUSTA – Two bills that would turn Maine into a “right-to-work” state, once a stated priority for Republican Gov. Paul LePage, have lain dormant in the Legislature, and their fate remains uncertain.

Opponents of the bills say that there aren’t enough votes to pass them in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and that recent events that have sparked labor protests in Maine and nationally may have diminished support for the legislation.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, apply to workers in the private and public sectors. They would prohibit requiring non-union workers to pay negotiating fees to unions.

Currently, workers can choose whether to join a union if there is one in their workplace. If they join, they pay union dues. If they do not join, they do not pay dues, but they must pay fees for benefiting from union negotiations on issues such as wages and benefits.

Proponents of “right-to-work” legislation say workers should not be forced to pay anything. Opponents say the measures are aimed at undermining organized labor, because if workers could receive all the benefits of a unionized work force but not have to contribute, then no one would join.

Earlier this year, Wisconsin saw angry protests over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to limit union rights.

In late February, in an interview with Politico, LePage said, “They’re going to leave Wisconsin and come to Maine because we’re going after right-to-work.”

He said the issue was all about “freedom and liberty” but acknowledged that passage would be “a battle.”

About a month later, LePage prompted an outcry by the state’s labor groups and the arts community for ordering the removal of a mural depicting the state’s labor history from the lobby of the Department of Labor’s headquarters.

Now, three days after Friday’s unofficial deadline for legislative committee work, the two bills, L.D. 309 and L.D. 788, are still languishing in committee.

When asked about the bills’ fate, Winsor, their sponsor, said, “I don’t know — how’s that?

“And I don’t mean to be mysterious about it,” he said. “There’s no consensus, I think, about what’s going to happen.”

The rules of the Legislature dictate that at some point, the proposals must be voted on or carried over to the next session. But as of Friday, that decision had not been made.

“The ball’s in leadership’s court,” said Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, Senate chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Rector said there was time earlier in the session for the committee to take up the bills, but the decision was not his.

Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, did not return a request for comment Friday.

Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO said his group has been lobbying against the “right-to-work” legislation.

“There’s ever-increasing disinterest in these bills among legislators,” he said. “What we’d love is just some clarity about how it’s going to proceed.”

Business groups, such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, declined to take a formal position on the issue.

“Our board discussed it, as a lot of the different business groups and business associations did,” said Peter Gore, the chamber’s vice president of public affairs. “From our perspective, was it a top priority for us? No.”

Gore said the chamber chose instead to focus on issues such as regulatory reform, taxes and the budget.

Winsor, the bills’ sponsor, said he believes the lack of business support has hurt the legislation’s chances.

“I think it’s been publicly stated that (LePage) was a little bit frustrated with the business community, who in private would say, ‘Yeah, we’re behind it, but we’re not going to come out and yell,’ ” he said. “And again, they’re interested in doing whatever business they do and not getting into a labor dispute.”

Gore acknowledged meeting with members of the administration to discuss the measures “conceptually,” and said the group was forthcoming about its position.

“It was clear to the administration and others that from a priority perspective, this would not be a top priority for us, given the other very important issues out there for the business community this session,” he said.

In a written statement, a LePage spokeswoman recently downplayed the importance of the legislation to the governor.

“(Right-to-work) legislation is not currently a priority for the administration,” she said. “However, we do expect this to carry a prominent presence in the next session.”

LePage was unavailable for an interview Friday.

Winsor, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said he’s content to wait and see what comes of his proposals.

“I think it’s a great argument to have and I would love to have it,” he said.

The labor committee is expected to meet next week, but according to the legislative website, neither of Winsor’s bills has been scheduled for a public hearing.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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