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Gov. Mills vetoes 3 bills, including measure to set minimum wage for farmworkers

In World
April 24, 2024

Apr. 23—Gov. Janet Mills vetoed three bills on Tuesday, including measures that would have set a minimum wage for farmworkers in Maine and allow them to engage in certain labor-related activity.

She also rejected a bill that would have required the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill to treat water discharge so that it does not exceed the drinking water standards established by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

In all, Mills has vetoed five bills that passed this session. Two of the vetoes already have been sustained.

Lawmakers will have the chance to vote on the other three later this month, and possibly more. Overturning a veto requires two-thirds support in both the House and Senate, and none of the three bills vetoed Tuesday passed with that margin. Mills has never had a veto overridden during her time as governor.

Mills explained her reasoning on the most recent vetoes in letters to lawmakers that were posted online.

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Referencing L.D. 2273, the agriculture workers minimum wage bill that she introduced, Mills said she objected not to the higher wage but to language added by lawmakers that allows for “privately initiated litigation over alleged violations.”

“In other words, if someone believed their employer was violating labor law, they could obtain a private lawyer and sue their employer, in this case a farm owner,” Mills wrote, adding that she doesn’t “believe it is appropriate to authorize a private right of action carte blanche, particularly in the case of farms, because I am deeply concerned that doing so would result in litigation that would simply sap farmers of financial resources and cause them to fail.”

Mills vetoed a similar bill last year after it had been amended to include what she considered unintended consequences and unforeseen costs.

The Maine AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor organization, called the veto “an embarrassment to the state of Maine and a continuation of a long history of exclusion and exploitation.”

“Governor Mills’ veto sends a clear message to farmworkers that they are of second-class status and are not worthy of the same rights and protections other workers enjoy,” executive director Matt Schlobohm said in a statement.

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A member of the Governor’s Agricultural Worker Minimum Wage Committee, a study group Mills established after she vetoed a farmworker minimum wage bill last summer, criticized the governor for denying farmworkers access to legal recourse.

“After a year of deliberation, with all relevant stakeholders at the table agreeing farmworkers should be guaranteed at least the minimum wage, Gov. Mills still chose to veto a bill that would have guaranteed the most basic rights for farmworkers,” Arthur Phillips, policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank, said in a statement. “The primary reason cited for this action was the inclusion of a provision granting farmworkers access to the courts, a right enjoyed by all other workers.”

In vetoing L.D. 525, which would create a new legal framework governing labor relations in Maine’s agricultural sector, Mills wrote that farmers shouldn’t have to deal with new regulations.

“Unfortunately, farmers are now facing a multitude of serious threats to their livelihood ranging from the severe weather that is likely to become worse as the effects of climate change intensify, to PFAS contamination, to inflation, to price pressures, and so much more,” she wrote. “These serious challenges are taking a terrible toll, with Maine having lost more than 1,100 farms since 2012, including 564 farms accounting for 82,567 acres of farmland since 2017. Against this background, I cannot subject our farmers to a complicated new set of labor laws that will require a lawyer just to understand. Now is not the time to impose a new regulatory burden on our agricultural sector, and particularly not family-owned farms that are not well-positioned to know and understand their obligations under a new such law.”

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Mills also sent back L.D. 2135, which would have authorized the state’s Bureau of General Services to negotiate a new operating agreement with Casella, the operator of the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. The bill also would have required treatment of leachate for PFAS, also called forever chemicals, to match existing drinking water standards.

“There is no question that PFAS contamination poses a threat to the health of our people, our wildlife and our environment, but applying drinking water standards to the treatment of landfill leachate is not appropriate,” she wrote.

Data kept by the state, though, shows that Maine’s defunct landfills have been leaking potentially harmful forever chemicals into the drinking water supplies of nearby homes at levels that are up to 100 times higher than what Maine deems safe to drink.

Records released to the Press Herald last week showed that 23 closed landfills from Kittery to Corinna are responsible for contaminating 51 drinking wells. That total is likely higher because Maine has only tested 95 of its more than 400 shuttered landfills.

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