Republican radio address

For the weekend of January 23-24, 2010

Greetings, this is Mike Thibodeau, state representative from Winterport. As a new session of the Maine Legislature moves into full swing, the dominant theme is the state’s budget shortfall, estimated at more than $430 million. Sales taxes and income taxes are running below projections, and the problem in both categories is the state’s high unemployment rate.

The recession is partly to blame; but Maine’s poor job situation is nothing new. Charles Colgan, a former State Economist, said recently that Maine has gained 44,000 people in the past decade but added only 57 net new jobs. Thirty years of one-party control of state government have created a formula for failure. According to Forbes magazine, Maine ranks 48th in business friendliness and 46th in cost of doing business. It’s no wonder so few expanding companies give us a second look. For Maine’s economic viability over both the short and long term, we need to cultivate a business environment that matches our state’s quality of life and natural beauty.

Considering the desperate need for jobs to keep state government up and running, you would expect all legislators to want to expand our employment base by any means necessary. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. There’s a bill now in the Labor Committee that would kill countless jobs and heap a huge new burden on just about every business in Maine.

I’m referring to LD 1665, entitled “An Act to Prevent the Spread of H1N1.” The sponsor is Democratic State Senator Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, the President of the Senate and a candidate for governor. H1N1, of course, is the swine flu, which is already in retreat. But this bill has almost nothing to do with the swine flu. A more accurate title would be “An Act to Make Maine’s Business Climate Even Worse.” The bill would require that all employers, large and small, public and private, provide paid sick leave to all employees, full-time, part-time and seasonal. That might sound like an admirable goal, but no other state imposes such a damaging mandate. And it would come on top of a 65 percent increase in the unemployment insurance tax.

As it stands, a majority of Maine employers already provide paid sick leave for their full-time workers – and it’s not just large businesses. According to the Maine Department of Labor, more than 60 percent of companies with fewer than 20 employees have sick leave policies; and most of them allow time off to take care of an ill family member. It’s safe to assume that companies without paid sick leave simply can’t swing it financially.

Last week, the Labor Committee held a public hearing on Mitchell’s bill. It lasted six hours, and the recurrent theme from the folks who testified was that this legislation would do serious damage to Maine’s economy. We heard from all sorts of people who oppose this bill. A partial list includes UNUM, the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Grocers Association, Shaws Supermarkets, the Maine Merchants Association, Cianbro, the Maine Tourism Association, the Maine Pulp & Paper Association, and even little Haven’s Candies of Westbrook.

All those people came forward to state their firm objection. A vice president from Hannaford summed up the general feeling with these words: “The increased cost of this legislation will not be magically absorbed. Businesses will be forced into one of several courses of action: leave the state, raise prices, or modify the compensation package to reduce the impact of this new expense. This may result in reduced raises, less money for insurance coverage or hiring fewer part-time workers.”

The president of Downeast Energy ridiculed the title of the bill as “an insult to the citizens of Maine.” He observed that a newspaper headline about his testimony could easily read “Downeast Energy supports the spread of H1N1.” Jeanne Carpentier, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn in Freeport, said, “The bill makes no sense and will dramatically affect our operations immediately and in an extremely negative fashion. Senator Mitchell has completely lost touch with the realities of running a business.”

A job-killing bill like this deserves to fail. Unfortunately it has powerful cosponsors, including House Speaker Hannah Pingree and House Majority Leader John Piotti. Republicans will do all we can to stop it, but we are badly outnumbered. Stay tuned.

This is Mike Thibodeau. Thank you for listening