AUGUSTA — Lawmakers decided Monday to wait until next year to vote on a bill that would end the requirement that nonunion state workers pay a portion of union dues.

The Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voted to carry over L.D. 309, which last week was the subject of a contentious public hearing and a State House rally by hundreds of union members.

The committee’s Senate chairman, Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, said Monday that the committee needs more time to consider the proposal. “I think there are some questions that still remain unanswered for some of us,” he said.

It’s routine for lawmakers to carry over bills until the second year of the two-year session.

L.D. 309 was referred to the labor committee in February, then was pulled from the committee, then was sent back to it late last month by Republicans who wanted action this year. Gov. Paul LePage has been a vocal supporter of the bill.

Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said Monday that the union believed it had enough House and Senate votes to kill the bill.

“What happened today was Republicans and LePage not having the votes to pass this bill,” he said.

Last week, an estimated 600 union members rallied against L.D. 309, which would let state workers who aren’t in a union choose whether to pay fees to help cover the cost of collective bargaining. What’s known as the “fair share” for those workers is about 54 percent of regular dues.

Union members argue that it’s only fair for all workers to help pay for collective bargaining, since any raises or benefits it produces benefit all workers.

Supporters of the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, testified at the public hearing that they resent being required to pay anything to the unions, particularly because they disagree with the unions’ political activities.

A law enacted in 2007 allows the state to withdraw the service fee from paychecks automatically, without workers’ consent.

The service fee requirement was first put into union contracts in 2003 for new hires. In 2005, it was expanded to apply to all state workers. A group challenged the fee in state and federal courts, but could not overturn the contract language.

On Monday, only one of the committee’s 13 members voted against carrying over L.D. 309. Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he wanted to vote “ought not to pass.”

“This is an issue that is very cut and dried for me personally,” he said. “I never agree with people getting the benefits off the backs of others.”

Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said he wanted to carry the bill over because of confusion that arose from the public hearing.

The first version of the bill given to committee members differed from a second version, which wasn’t handed out until about halfway through the hearing. As a result, some people who testified spoke about issues that weren’t intended to be part of the bill.

For example, there was confusion over whether the bill would affect municipal workers, such as firefighters, and over a provision to discontinue automatic withdrawal of union fees from paychecks if a labor contract isn’t in place by July 1.

The LePage administration and union leaders are negotiating a new two-year contract. The current contract expires June 30.

“We by no means feel we shouldn’t have the discussion” about L.D. 309, Cushing said. “We need to have the discussions in another format.”

The bill, as amended, would let workers decide whether to pay the service fee, and would require the state to get written permission from workers to deduct it from their paychecks. The union would not be required to represent an employee in a grievance case if he or she refused to pay the fee.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor “respects the decision of leadership” to carry over the bill.

In a prepared statement, House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said that by holding the bill, lawmakers are challenging assertions made by the unions.

“In particular, a strong accusation has been levied that this bill was meant to interfere with negotiations between the governor and the state employee unions,” he said. “This couldn’t be further from the truth, and the decision to hold this over until next session should make that 100 percent clear.”

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said lawmakers don’t want to be part of LePage’s “anti-worker agenda.” He said unions have an even better chance of killing the bill next year, because lawmakers will face re-election.

“I think it’s a victory for Maine workers,” he said. “It’s very clear the votes won’t be there to pass this in an election year.”

 

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