Lawmakers in Augusta appear to be on the verge of doing something we haven’t seen in a long time: making progress on a tough issue.

A bipartisan majority of the Labor and House Committee passed an amended version of L.D. 369, which would mandate that some Maine workers earn paid time off.  An earlier version of the bill had cleared the committee on a party-line vote, but had an uncertain future in the state Senate.

The compromise bill does not cover as many people as the original version would have. It applies to businesses that have more than 10 employees instead of ones with more than five. And it would prevent cities and towns from passing their own, more restrictive sick-time ordinances, like the one Portland has been working on for some time.

But advocates for the thousands of Maine workers who can’t miss a day of work without losing a day’s pay would have something to celebrate if the bill passes. There have been bills to mandate paid sick time that went nowhere since at least 2008. If this were to pass, Maine would be only the 11th state to have this protection for any workers.

Passing this law would be a victory in another way. After eight years of my-way-or-the-highway government, we have not seen the legislative process work the way it’s supposed to for a long time. With a governor who refused to compromise and set a record for vetoing bills, multi-faceted questions had to be settled at the ballot box in up-or-down referendum votes.

The liberal activist group Maine People’s Alliance has prepared a paid-sick-day referendum, which could go to the voters next year if the Legislature doesn’t act. But its supporters gave lawmakers a chance to pass a bill first. That was the right approach.

Not every question can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” And passage by the voters is no guarantee that a referendum ends up being implemented. In different years, voters required the state to contribute 55 percent of total education spending and to get the money by taxing high-income residents. But the promises of those ballot questions have not come true.

The give and take of the legislative process almost guarantees that the final product won’t be exactly what supporters originally envisioned. But it has a better chance of being put into action.

Especially promising is the news that the paid-sick-time compromise was negotiated by the governor’s office. Instead of threatening a veto or waiting for a bill to die in the Legislature without offering any input, Gov. Mills was able to hammer out a deal that has bipartisan support. She says she will sign it if it comes to her desk.

Covered workers would earn one hour of paid time off for every 40 hours worked, accruing up to 40 hours in a year. The amended bill would cover 85 percent of Maine workers, including an estimated 139,000 people who would be newly eligible. And unlike the original bill, workers could use their earned time off for any reason, not just when they are sick.

That is no small victory. The bill’s backers can always come back to expand eligibility in the future, but until that happens, people who are currently denied paid sick time will get some relief later this year.

This compromise could be a guide for how to handle other controversial bills that would have stalled under the last administration. It shows that state government can make progress on issues that make a difference in people’s lives.

This is how government is supposed to work. It may not be a great campaign soundbite, but passing a less-than-perfect bill now would be a huge step forward for Maine.


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