Inside Augusta

Leg Council rejects crucial workforce development bill, denies public employees their First Amendment rights

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The majority members of Maine’s Legislative Council voted Friday to kill along party lines a pair of nonpartisan emergency bill requests that would have helped combat Maine’s workforce shortage and bring the state in compliance with a recent Supreme Court ruling regarding public employees’ First Amendment rights.

The council met on Friday to consider appeals by lawmakers who had their bill requests rejected at the council’s meeting on October 23.

LR 2864, sponsored by Rep. John Andrews, would have established what is known as “universal recognition” in Maine. Under the bill, a worker who moves to Maine and wishes to continue practicing in a licensed field could immediately obtain a license to practice in Maine, upon paying an application fee, if the worker was licensed for at least one year in the state from which they moved and were in good standing with their licensing board.

The impetus of the bill is to streamline the licensing process to prevent workers whom Maine desperately needs from waiting weeks or months to obtain a license to practice here. We already know this occurs – The Maine Wire has previously highlighted the story of Kimberly Fichthorn, an independent dental hygienist who waited four months to obtain a license to practice in Maine despite her obvious qualifications.

Fichthorn practiced as a registered dental hygienist under a cosmetics-focused general dentist in Austin, Texas for 18 while teaching for 15 years at a dental assisting school that she co-owned. Her experience wasn’t good enough for the State of Maine. She had to pay $561.40 filing multiple applications (the licensing board somehow lost her initial application) and providing national and regional board scores, college transcripts and so on. Even worse, the process delayed her from opening up shop in a federally-designated dental health shortage area.

These barriers to employment separate qualified workers from meaningful employment in Maine. Politicians of all stripes, including some members of the legislative council, often talk about finding ways to bring new people to our state, yet oppose efforts to do so.

In her inaugural address, Governor Janet Mills said, “Attracting talented young people to move here and make Maine their home will be a top priority of my administration.” House Speaker Sara Gideon’s website says, “A skilled and educated workforce helps existing businesses thrive and is a key to attracting new employers. Maine’s employers need workers with the skills to help them compete in developing and growing industries.” In commentary to the Sun Journal earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby said, “We desperately need to figure out a way to bring new workers to our state.”

Maine is the oldest state in the nation in terms of median age and our working population is projected to decrease another six percent by 2026. Maine employers already struggle to find workers to fill vacancies within their businesses. Until we streamline our occupational licensing laws, it’s hard to imagine why any credentialed worker would move here to work. Between high taxes and an ever-encroaching regulatory state, workers see Maine for what it currently is – a burdensome place to live.

In addition, the legislative council shot down LR 2828, sponsored by Rep. Dick Bradstreet, which would have brought Maine law into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

In Janus v. AFSCME, the high court ruled that public employees cannot be required to pay dues or fees to a labor union as a condition of employment. To deduct money from workers’ paychecks, a public union must first obtain an employee’s affirmative consent for the deduction to occur.

The Janus decision unequivocally states, “The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them. Accordingly, neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”

Maine law currently states that public employees may be required to have agency fees deducted from their paychecks, which runs counter to the high court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME.

In the collective bargaining laws governing municipal employees, state employees, University of Maine System employees and judicial employees, state statute currently says an employee can refrain from joining a union, “except that an employee may be required to pay to the organization that is the bargaining agent for the employee a service fee that represents the employee’s pro rata share of those expenditures that are germane to the organizations representational activity.” In other words, Maine law is currently at odds with the highest court in the land.

Under Janus, an employee cannot be required to pay agency fees. There is no such thing as compulsory union fees any longer. Public employees cannot be required to pay anything to their bargaining agent. Fees and payments can only be deducted if a public worker consents to pay.

Unfortunately, both bills failed by a 6-4 vote on Friday.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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