There’s a political debate looming at the State House about whether Maine workers should have guaranteed access to paid time off to care for an ailing family member or themselves after an illness or injury.

And looming above state lawmakers’ heads is the prospect – or threat – that groups with a track record of winning ballot campaigns will send the issue to voters if the Legislature fails to act.

The issue is whether Maine should join roughly a dozen other states – including four of its New England neighbors – with a paid family and medical leave (PFML) law.

Under federal law, most workers can take unpaid time off to deal with a family or personal medical issue. But advocates say that’s not enough because most people can’t afford to go weeks, much less months, without a paycheck as they care for a family member with a terminal illness or bond with a newborn.

The prospects of a federal paid family and medical leave law are dim given today’s divided Congress. So advocates are focusing on states – and in Maine are pursuing a two-track campaign.

The Legislature is the first and primary avenue. An as-yet-unpublished bill – based on a lengthy report from a special committee that Daughtry co-chaired – is expected to recommend up to 12 weeks of paid leave for a “qualifying need” and up to 16 weeks total over a year. As currently proposed, the new mandate would only apply to businesses with 15 or more employees.

To pay for the program, both workers and employers would contribute through essentially a payroll tax. The size and share of that contribution for workers and their employers, would have to be hashed out by lawmakers, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and business groups already leery of what they see as another business tax.

The alternative pathway is through the ballot box. But that’s a risky route for paid leave opponents.

Two progressive groups, the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Women’s Lobby, are already gathering petition signatures for a statewide referendum. And therein lies the danger: the version those pro-worker and pro-family groups put before the voters could differ significantly from whatever emerges from the more collaborative, albeit messy legislative process.

For instance, while the ballot initiative proposes that employees and employers split the contribution 50-50, the PFML commission’s report suggested policymakers consider anywhere from an even split to having workers pay 75% of the cost.

Those details, as well as the percentage of the payroll tax, would be negotiated in the Legislature but set in stone in the ballot initiative.

Business groups are already signaling that they want to avoid Maine adopting a policy that is more costly to employers than paid leave laws in other New England states.

In Rhode Island and Connecticut, workers pay the entire cost of the premium out of their paychecks. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts and New Hampshire (which has a voluntary PFML policy), the costs are split between employers and employees but by different percentages. There are also differences among states about how “qualifying need” and family are defined.

But skeptics or opponents of a mandatory PFMA policy in Maine will be treading a tightrope, of sorts. Look no further than Maine’s minimum wage to see how blocking a potentially popular issue in the Legislature can backfire when it gets into the ballot box.

For years, business groups and their Republican allies successfully fought back repeated attempts to increase Maine’s $7.50 minimum wage. And then they lost big in 2016 when groups frustrated with years of inaction – including the Maine People’s Alliance – offered a statewide referendum increasing the minimum wage annually. It passed and today, Maine’s $13.80 minimum wage is 84% higher than in 2016.

Maine’s newly reelected governor is a moderate or centrist Democrat who has angered her party’s left-wing by blocking or vetoing bills that were opposed by business interests.

At the same time, Mills sponsored a 2019 law that established a paid sick leave policy in Maine, so the fate is really unknown.