LEWISTON — Heading into this year’s legislative session, Maine’s business leaders were wary.

After eight years with a Republican governor, they suddenly faced a new political landscape with a Democratic governor and the Democrats in solid control of both the state Senate and House of Representatives.

“The truth is the Democrats could get anything they wanted” given the lopsided numbers, Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, tells Lewiston business leaders the recent legislative session was not bad. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

But, he told a gathering of business leaders at Geiger, the promotional products company in Lewiston, “that’s not how they operated.”

Instead, said state Rep. Bruce Bickford, an Auburn Republican, “a whole different tenor” existed, with a new atmosphere of cooperation at the State House that put a premium on consensus.

Sen. Ned Claxton, an Auburn Democrat, said members set the tone from the start by mixing up the seating so politicians sat beside colleagues from the other party. He said it helped foster a sense that issues should not be “them and us,” and ensured everyone’s voice was heard.

For Connors, that cooperative spirit — a drastic change from the combative years with Paul LePage in the Blaine House — meant that despite many challenges, “it wasn’t a bad session” for Maine’s business community.

During the first of a series of statewide reviews of the session with local business leaders, Connors credited Democratic Gov. Janet Mills with blocking tax hikes and staving off costly initiatives that might have hurt Maine’s economy.

He said she showed “the value of a strong governor” who is willing to listen to all sides of controversial issues and to work toward compromise.

“While we did not always prevail,” Connors said, “everyone listened to us.”

Peter Gore, the chamber’s executive vice president, pointed to a couple of potentially troubling proposals for business — such as paid sick leave — that wound up on more solid ground because lawmakers and Mills sought consensus on them.

The paid sick leave bill initially raised alarm bells for businesspeople who worried about its cost and the complications involved in figuring out when workers would be able to take time off under its proposed provisions.

After much discussion, Gore said, “a manageable compromise” emerged that shifted the bill’s terms so workers at companies with 10 or more employees will get an hour of sick time for every 40 hours they work, up to a maximum of 40 hours of time off a year. The paid time could be used for an illness or family emergency.

Linda Caprara, senior government relations specialist in taxation for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, discusses the recent legislative session. Looking on, from left: Beckie Conrad, president and CEO of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce;  Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce; and Ben Gilman, also of the state chamber. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Gore said the final version also included a clause ensuring municipalities could not adopt stricter standards, a crucial win for businesses operating in a number of localities.

Ben Gilman, senior government relations specialist for the chamber, said “a lot of compromise” shaped many of other issues as well, even some that might look like a loss for the business community.

Take the decision to ban plastic shopping bags, for example. Gilman said by working with legislators, the adopted bill imposed clear rules governing the bags that will pre-empt the regulations already adopted by 22 Maine municipalities that offer a patchwork of varying requirements.

Having a single standard, he said, benefits a range of companies that might otherwise have faced headaches trying to comply with local laws across the state.

Linda Caprara, senior government relations specialist in taxation for the chamber, hailed legislators for killing “a very poor bill” to impose a water extraction tax that would have clobbered Poland Spring.

Connors said a bill that will mandate a public hearing for any proposed initiative for the ballot is a good first step toward reining in the referendum process because it would at least allow “both sides to state their case.”

Despite making it through the first legislative session with Democrats in charge without much damage, business leaders are worried about what could happen in the future.

They pointed to a host of issues postponed until next year’s short session that could pose problems. Among them: a possible revision to the estate tax, a family and medical leave act and a measure to have a public entity take over control of the state’s utility grid.

The chamber plans similar sessions this week in Bangor, Presque Isle and Augusta.


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