Chamber’s “On the Horizon” briefing gave businesses a preview of the legislative issues ahead
On Monday, January 6, more than 100 employer representatives packed the conference room at Augusta’s Bangor Savings Bank for an in-depth issue briefing on what’s ahead for the Second Session of the 129th Legislature. Generously sponsored but Bangor Savings Bank and Moderated by the Maine State Chamber’s advocacy team, event attendees heard panelists discuss the top issues for employers in 2020.
The four panels touched on the Maine State Chamber’s policy committee priorities: energy and utilities, human resource issues, taxation, and education/workforce. To broaden the scope and perspective of the program, the Maine State Chamber reached outside of its traditional advocacy format to include government relations representatives from other industry sectors, business associations, and specific policy area experts. The result was a successful, informative and collaborative 2.5 hours.
Leading off the morning was the energy and utility panel, moderated by the Maine State Chamber’s Ben Gilman. During this portion of the program, three topic areas, which will soon be before the legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT) committee, were explored – state ownership of T&D utilities proposed in LD 1646, implications of the internet data privacy legislation (LD 946) that passed last session, and the report back to the EUT committee from the Energy Storage Commission.
Jim Cohen of Verrill Dana presented a comprehensive overview of what the passage of LD 1646 and change in ownership from investor-owned utilities to state-owned would look like. Andy Kingman of the State Privacy and Security Coalition discussed how the passage of LD 946 will change the internet experience for Maine businesses and consumers. Closing out the panel was Jeremy Payne of the Maine Renewable Energy Association updating the group of the work done by the energy storage commission and the potential legislation the EUT committee might consider in the upcoming Second Session of the 129th Legislature. This panel was only a brief glimpse of some of the work that faces the EUT committee and not comprehensive of all issues that the Maine State Chamber will be actively involved in during the upcoming session, such as expansion of broadband into rural Maine.
Following the energy and utilities panel, a discussion of labor and health care related bills was moderated by the Maine State Chamber’s Peter Gore. Panelists David Clough, state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses Maine (NFIB), and Kristine Ossenfort, senior government relations director for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield in Maine, discussed the upcoming policy challenges facing both the Labor and Housing committee and the Health Care and Insurance and Financial Services (HCIFS) committee.
While Clough touched on the number of important pieces of legislation, he focused on LD 1410, An Act To Create Paid Family and Medical Leave Benefits, sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport). This bill will establish a paid family medical leave program allowing up to 12 or 20 weeks of paid leave at 100% of the state’s average weekly wage and paid for by a 0.75% payroll tax on all earners. The bill was heard last session, but carried over to this year.
Also discussed as LD 402, An Act to Restore Overtime Protections to Certain Workers, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Tipping, (D-Orono). This bill proposes to increase the wage portion of the three-pronged test used to determine hourly versus salaried employees to more than $55,000. Maine’s current salary threshold was recently increased to $36,000, which is higher than the new federal standard. This bill also had a public hearing, but was carried into this year.
The last bill this panel discussed was LD 1529, An Act Concerning Non-Disclosure Agreement in Employment, sponsored by Rep. Tom Harnett (D-Gardiner). This bill would prohibit employers from requiring an employee to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) as a condition of employment or when settling a discrimination case, unless the victim requested the NDA. This bill passed both bodies of the legislature last session; however, the governor had the bill re-called from her desk, and it was carried over to this session.
Lastly, Clough discussed the recent statewide listening sessions conducted by the Maine Department of Labor, to take comment and concerns regarding Maine’s new paid time off law, which was passed in 2019. Scheduled to go into effect in 2021, the law required the Maine DOL to undertake rulemaking in order to determine the specifics of how the new leave policy will be implemented in the workplace. Clough indicated the department had completed their sessions with hundreds of comments from businesses, and that department officials hoped to have draft rules for public comment by April 2020.
Because of a lack of specific new bill titles at this point in the new session, Ms. Ossenfort provided a broad overview of the extensive public policy ideas under consideration in health care / insurance in 2020. These include Governor Mill’s proposal to establish a state-based exchange (see page 1). as opposed to the state/federal exchange that currently operates in Maine, for the individual market – and perhaps the small group market as well. This is in addition to a number of carry-over proposals to establish a single payor, universal access, or public option plan in Maine, among other things. Other policy proposals include additional mandated benefits, greater insurance regulation in the small group market, and prohibitions on surprise billing for emergency room services.
Linda Caprara moderated the third panel to discuss the upcoming taxation bills expected to be debated in 2020. Most of the major tax issues of concern to the Maine State Chamber are carry-over bills from last session. As part of the panel discussion, Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for Hospitality Maine, discussed two carryover bills that dealt with the issue of local option taxes. He provided a brief history of local option sales tax proposals and of meals and lodging tax increases, as well as a perspective on the most recent legislative efforts: LD 609, An Act to Provide Municipalities Additional Sales Tax Revenue from Lodging Sales, which would increase the lodging tax from 9% to 10%, and LD 1254, An Act to Authorize a Local Option Sales Tax on Meals and Lodging to Treat Opioid Use Disorder, which would authorize a municipality to impose a local options sales tax up to 1% on meals and lodging.
Olga Goldberg, an attorney with Pierce Atwood, deals with state and local tax issues and discussed two bills impacting the corporate taxes and investment policies. First, LD 903, An Act to Improve the Corporate Tax Fairness by Amending the Rates Imposed on Corporate Income, would create two new income tax brackets for income over $2 million. Income between $2 million and $3 million would be subject to a tax rate increase from 8.33% to 8.5%, and income between $3 million and $3.5 million would be subject to a tax rate increase from 8.33% to 8.75%. The bill would also increase the top rate from 8.93% to 9%. Goldberg discussed the second bill pending before the legislature this session, LD 977, An Act to Restore the Super Credit for Substantially Increased Research and Development, which proposes to require businesses to provide proprietary information to OPEGA and DECD as part of the review of tax expenditure process. She indicated that such a change may well place Maine businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
Finally, Caprara, outlined LD 420, An Act to Amend the Exclusion Amount in the Estate Tax, and the impact the bill would have on Maine small businesses. This carryover bill would reduce the estate tax exclusion amount from the current $5.7 million to $2 million. She noted, during the past five years, the Legislature has taken steps to increase the exclusion amount in recognition of the penalizing estate tax. Often when business owners pass away, the business is left to their children and grandchildren. Many times, they have to sell the businesses assets or take out loans, which may or may not be financially feasible, just to pay the tax, putting at risk the future of the family business. Ultimately, many businesses are dissolved as a result. The bill failed in both the House (75-70) and the Senate (19-12). The proponents requested the bill be recommitted back to the Taxation committee.
Megan Diver lead the fourth panel, focusing on upcoming policy proposals related to education and workforce development. Diver was joined by Samantha Warren, director of government and community relations for the University of Maine System, as well as Jason Judd, executive director of Educate Maine. The three organizations will be working on a couple different bills this session relating to early childhood care and educators. LD 1760, An Act to Support Children’s Healthy Development and School Readiness, is one of those bills. It proposes to create the “First 4 ME Early Care and Education” program that seeks to build on the success of Elevate Maine project in Skowhegan to support 10 community-designed pilots to integrate Head Start’s comprehensive services in center-based and family child care settings. This investment in early childhood education is essential to prepare our youngest learners for success by providing much needed systems-level and coordinated support for students and their families.
We know that we need to attract and retain more early childhood workers to support these programs. LD 1584, An Act To Attract, Build and Retain an Early Childhood Education Workforce through Increased Training, Education and Career Pathways, is a bill to address this need. This bill requires the Commissioner of Health and Human Services, the Commissioner of Education, and the Commissioner of Labor jointly to develop and implement an early childhood educator’s workforce support program to recruit and retain early childhood educators working with children up to five years of age.
There has been considerable discussion inside the business community as well as in the halls of the Statehouse with respect to Maine’s current and future workforce shortage. Maine faces a labor shortage in the coming years, as the baby boomer generation retires and there are fewer young people in our state to fill their shoes. Leveraging the talent of Maine’s immigrant populations is a key strategy for ensuring a strong and vibrant workforce while preserving economic growth. One carry-over bill to help address this policy area this session will be LD 647, An Act to Attract, Educate, and Retain New State Residents to Strengthen the Workforce. The Maine State Chamber began working on the bill last year as an example of the kinds of steps we can take now to add to our workforce. The bill would expand the funding of the New Mainers Resource Center and create a similar center in Lewiston. These centers would support language acquisition and credentialing − helping to fill serious needs in health care and to support growing Maine industries.
Program attendees were left with the notion that 2020 would be a busy and important year for Maine employers in nearly every public policy committee area. And the Maine State Chamber advocacy team will be in the Statehouse to represent the views of our members, and businesses overall, on these and other critical legislative issues. For additional information or questions, please contact Peter Gore by calling (207) 623-4568, ext. 107, or by emailing email@example.com.