AUGUSTA – A contentious bill that would change union requirements for state workers is headed back to a legislative committee for a public hearing next week, following Senate action Thursday.

As they did in the House a day earlier, Democrats asked pointed questions about why L.D. 309 hasn’t followed the traditional path of legislation. The Senate debate was testy and, at times, personal.

“This is an emotional issue being taken up at the same time the (two-year state) budget is being taken up,” said Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford. “If we bring this back up, we jeopardize the budget in its entirety.”

As written, L.D. 309 would amend state law so that a public-sector union would represent only workers who “voluntarily are members of that union.” The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, said he plans to offer an amendment that would focus the bill on union fees collected from non-union members.

State law now requires every state worker to join the Maine State Employees Association or pay a fee, which goes to the union to cover the cost of collective bargaining and grievances. About 2,100 state workers pay the service fee.

The fee is a little more than half the amount of regular union dues and can be deducted from an employee’s paycheck without his or her approval.

Winsor doesn’t think that’s fair. “Should somebody be forced to join a private club so they can go to work?” he said.

His amendment, which he plans to offer June 2 at the public hearing by the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, would allow an employee to choose to pay the fee. It would require the employee’s written authorization for the fee to be deducted. It also would allow the union to refuse to represent workers who don’t join or pay the fee.

Gov. Paul LePage supports the amendment, said his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

“The state of Maine shouldn’t be forced to garnish union fees from employee paychecks,” she said. “The governor has said all along he doesn’t believe somebody should be forced to pay that service fee if they don’t want to.”

The original bill was first referred to the labor committee in February, but no public hearing was ever scheduled. Given the uproar in the Midwest over collective bargaining rights, Winsor said it was appropriate to let time pass before Maine considered his bill.

Earlier this month, the bill was pulled from the committee. Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, now says that was a clerical error.

During Thursday’s debate, repeated questions about timing prompted Raye to take the unusual step of coming down from the rostrum to address the Senate.

“This bill was pulled out of committee as a clerical error,” he said. “I can show you the letter that does not have my signature, because I did not approve it.”

Raye said he wants L.D. 309 to go back to the committee so the public can give testimony on the measure and committee members can give it full consideration.

He said lawmakers should be able to handle more than one controversial issue at a time.

“As for this blowing up the budget?” he said. “I find that appalling.”

Democrats questioned whether the issue will affect delicate budget negotiations, and whether the bill could be seen as an attempt to alter negotiations on a new contract for state workers.

State negotiators and the Maine State Employees Association have met three times and are scheduled for several more meetings, with the current contract set to expire June 30.

“Unfortunately, this bill could be perceived by outside interests as an attempt to inject this piece of legislation into the collective bargaining process,” said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco.

Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, who moved from the House after winning a special election May 10, said she was unaware that the issue would be taken up in the Senate on Thursday until shortly before the debate began.

“This is a dangerous game we’re playing,” she said. “There is a perception that this is to put pressure on us as we work on the budget.”

In response, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, scolded Dill for being unprepared to debate.

“Doing homework the night before is part of the job,” she said. “To show you are unfamiliar with the process and not capable of moving through a calendar is not an excuse a Maine state senator should be proud to be making on the floor of the Maine state Senate.”

The 19-16 Senate vote was nearly along party lines, with Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee, voting against sending the bill back to committee. All of the other Republicans voted for it. Independent Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth voted to oppose the motion.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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