- Associated Press - Monday, March 10, 2014

BRUNSWICK, Maine (AP) - Maine Gov. Paul LePage began his push on Monday for a proposal that would offer business tax breaks and workers the freedom not to pay labor union fees, heralding it as a way to attract businesses that will pump millions into the economy and create thousands of jobs.

But the proposal to create “Open for Business Zones” faces a tough road in the Legislature that’s controlled by Democrats who panned the proposal as an anti-union effort that would mean lower wages for Maine workers.

LePage said Monday that Maine’s economy is making progress, but that the state must continue on the path toward becoming a partner of the private sector, instead of an adversary.

“Let’s work together to attract these companies here,” LePage said at the Maine Technology Institute at Brunswick Landing, the former Navy air base that’s been redeveloped for business use. “We’re starting to see a movement forward. Let’s continue it.”

The proposal seeks to attract businesses that invest more than $50 million and create at least 1,500 jobs by providing them tax and energy cost relief, and assistance to help train and recruit workers. They would be “right-to-work” zones, meaning non-union employees wouldn’t have to pay fees to negotiate and administer contracts.

Tax incentives would include corporate income tax credits and a sales tax exemption and reimbursement for up to 20 years. Companies would also have access to a pool of up to $500 million for development projects and could get reimbursements if their electric rates are higher than the national average.

Under the bill, companies would be encouraged to hire Maine workers and contract with other Maine companies, when possible. Attracting half-dozen large companies to Maine could increase revenue, allowing the state to change the way it taxes residents, LePage said.

But union officials immediately slammed the governor’s proposal, first announced in his State of the State address last month, calling it a political stunt that will hurt Maine workers.

Don Berry, President of Maine ALF-CIO, said in a statement that right-to-work allows businesses to move workers into part-time positions and will lead to weakened health and safety protections and slashed wages for workers. He pointed to the governor’s failure to get right-to-work legislation through the Legislature twice, including in 2011 when it was controlled by Republicans.

While Maine needs to attract large companies to spur economic growth, throwing right-to-work in the mix won’t help any Mainers, said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky.

“I think we should be striving to have a race to the top and that’s clearly a formula for a race to the bottom,” the Democrat from Brunswick said. “I don’t think it’s necessary in mid-coast Maine and I don’t think it’s necessary in Washington County, either.”

Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers embraced LePage’s proposal and urged their Democratic colleagues to give it a chance. Republican Sen. Andre Cushing, the lead sponsor on the bill, called the bill much-needed winning strategy to bring large scale companies to the state.

The piecemeal approach will prove to Mainers that right-to-work is effective in helping the state’s economy, LePage said.

“If we take it as a pilot program and we take it as a particular area and we try it, I think the Maine people will see it works very well,” he said.

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Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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