AUGUSTA — The Maine State Employees Association voiced strong opposition Wednesday to a bill that would prohibit it and other public employee labor unions from donating money to candidates for statewide office.

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, is sponsoring L.D. 110 because he believes it’s a conflict of interest for unions to be able to give money to legislators who then determine their pay and benefits.

“Elected officials have an obligation to protect taxpayers’ interests as well as the welfare of our employees,” he said. “The system of allowing unions to influence the election of officials who will vote on or sponsor legislation designed to favor their members, is a clear conflict of interest.”

But the MSEA, which represents about 10,000 state workers, called the bill unconstitutional and unfair.

“In the arena of self-interest, however, we are no different and no less than other organizations that benefit directly from state policies and budgets,” said Ginette Rivard, president of MSEA. “Hospitals, for profit and nonprofit businesses and health insurance companies are just a few that come to mind.”

Union attorney Timothy Belcher said the bill violates the union’s First Amendment right to contribute to political campaigns and equal protect and due process guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. He called the bill “a regrettable attempt by the sponsors to silence Maine citizens whose voice they find objectionable.”

“A vote for this bill is a vote against freedom of speech and association,” he said.

In addition to the bill sponsor, one other person spoke in favor of the measure. Paul Johnson of Oakland — no relation to bill sponsor Peter Johnson — is a retired state worker who thinks the public would have more confidence in government if these types of perceived conflicts did not exist.

“This would restore public confidence,” he said.

The bill will be considered at a work session set for 1 p.m. Feb. 20. While it may come out of committee with a split vote, it is unlikely to pass the Democratically-controlled House and Senate.

Susan Cover — 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com