May 27—Associations representing Maine school boards and superintendents are urging lawmakers to oppose a bill that would create binding arbitration on issues that include the salaries and benefits of public employees.
The legislation would make a third party arbitrator's determinations final and binding in decisions about salaries, benefits and pensions for public sector employees, including state and municipal employees, and employees of the state university system. It also would allow public employees to strike if their employer failed to carry out the binding determinations made by the arbitrator.
The Maine School Management Association and Maine School Boards Association wrote in a letter Wednesday to Senate President Troy Jackson, the bill's sponsor, and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, who is a co-sponsor, that they oppose the legislation and urged the lawmakers to reject it.
"It would allow teachers to strike and put decisions around teacher salaries, pensions and insurance into the hands of outside arbitrators — a move we believe will only increase those costs that are ultimately paid for by state and local taxpayers," the associations wrote.
The bill, L.D. 677, passed out of the Labor and Housing Committee last week in a divided vote. A similar bill last session, L.D. 1177, passed the House and the Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills. In written testimony, Jackson said the governor expressed concerns last session about ensuring that arbitrators are neutral and understand how Maine works, and giving public entities enough time to react to agreed-upon changes.
"I can assure you both of these changes have been addressed," Jackson wrote. He said the bill gives the governor the power to appoint a panel of impartial arbitrators who must live in Maine and ensures that any cost items in an arbitrated agreement are not included in the operating budget for the fiscal year in which it is ratified.
In a statement Wednesday, Jackson said L.D. 677 seeks to ensure that if parties can't reach a contract there is a process that involves mediation, fact-finding and then arbitration, and that arbitration is binding to all involved.
"Arbitration is supposed to be the option of last resort — a tool to use when two parties cannot come to an agreement," he said. "The fact that the superintendents would rather sue and spend taxpayer dollars on lawyers than work with educators to reach a fair contract isn't just disappointing, it's deeply offensive.
"Right now, Maine schools are receiving a significant amount of funding from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan. The Maine Legislature is on track to fund schools at 55 percent for the first time in our state's history. The suggestion that paying teachers fairly and working to reach a fair contract would adversely affect taxpayers is a fear tactic."
A spokeswoman for Fecteau responded to questions about the bill by saying that Jackson was taking the lead on the legislation. The Maine Education Association, which represents 24,000 public school employees statewide, has filed testimony in support of the bill saying it would level the playing field between management and public employees in matters related to collective bargaining.
"During nearly every contract discussion, teachers and public-school employees are reminded of the current unfairness in our current labor law," wrote John Kosinski, government relations director for the MEA. "We are reminded, often by the counsel for management, that they hold the ability to unilaterally implement wages and health insurance benefits. Unilaterally."
In one example, Kosinski said a school board exhausted the dispute resolution process in current law and then imposed a salary scale that resulted in large decreases in salary for some, spurring the flight of teachers away from the district. In another district, a group of nurses joined the MEA four years ago after two years of negotiations and were elated when both fact finding and arbitration panels agreed with the association's position on the salary scale.
Yet the school board refused the panel's reports and imposed the salary scale they wanted all along. "This situation represented the latest example of the unfairness in our current law and the need for a remedy," Kosinski said.
Other groups of public sector employees also would be covered by the legislation, including municipal, state and judicial employees. The Maine Municipal Association, which provides support and resources to local municipalities, has submitted testimony in opposition. "LD 677 would give control over a significant portion of municipal budgets to a single, unelected and entirely unaccountable individual," the MMA said.
The cities of Portland and Bangor also have submitted testimony in opposition, stating that the bill would give an outside arbitrator final say over wages and benefits that a municipality must then adopt in its next budget, taking that authority away from local government and voters.