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House Rejects Competing Minimum Wage Proposal Drafted by Business Groups

On a mostly party-line vote, Democrats in the Maine House voted to send a citizen-initiated measure that would raise the minimum wage to the voters in November without a competing measure sought by some businesses.

At issue was an attempt by business groups led by the Maine Restaurant Association to put a competing measure on the November ballot for an increase in the minimum wage to $10 an hour. Voters would then have a choice between that proposal and the citizen-initiated proposal for $12 an hour.

The House voted 78-69 to reject consideration of any competing measure on the ballot. Portland. Democratic Rep. Ben Chipman of Portland denounced that effort.

“This attempt now — to refer this to committee so a competing measure can come out — in my mind would undermine that process, and that’s not something I am willing to do,” he says. “A competing measure would split the vote and could result in nothing happening.”

Republican Rep. Jeff Timberlake of Turner argued voters should be given a choice on the ballot, not simply an up or down vote on the $12 an hour proposal. But he was chided by House Speaker Mark Eves for questioning the motives of lawmakers who disagree with him.

Supporters of a competing measure argued that some small businesses, particularly in rural areas of the state, may have to fire workers or go out of business if the voters approve the $12 minimum wage.

Rep. Ken Fredette, the Republican floor leader from Newport, reminded members that the state’s economy varies widely from southern Maine to the rural areas of the state. He strongly supports a competing measure.

“Not doing that quite frankly I think is another death nail [sic] to rural Maine because those are the people that are going to be affected by this bill,” he says. “Those people working for tip wages, those are going to be the people that are going to suffer by this.”

Last year there were several bills in the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee to increase the minimum wage by various amounts. All of them went down to defeat. So supporters of a wage increase started circulating petitions to either force the Legislature to adopt the proposal or send it to the voters.

The measure would raise the minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 an hour in 2017, and then by $1 an hour annually until it reaches $12 in 2020. It would increase in later years based on inflation.

Rep. Erin Herbig, a Democrat from Belfast, co-chairs the committee. She argued it should go to the voters without a competing measure.

“I urge everyone concerned to educate their friends, family and neighbors and let them decide whether this is a good idea or not,” she says. “What we should not do as a legislative body is to subvert the referendum process.”

The proposal now goes to the Senate, where the competing measure has strong support among Republicans who control that chamber. They could vote to send the proposal to committee, forcing the House to vote again on the issue.

While the House debated the minimum wage issue for an hour, they voted unanimously to reject the initiated bills to increase school funding and the gun safety measure. If the Senate agrees, as is expected, those questions will be on the ballot in November with no discussion of competing questions.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.