Business Coalition Drafting Competing Minimum Wage Measure

Feb 25, 2016

A coalition of Maine restaurateurs, innkeepers and retail merchants is crafting a proposal designed as an alternative to a measure on the fall ballot that will increase the minimum wage.

A citizen initiative this November would gradually bump up Maine’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by the year 2020, but many in the service industry say it’s too much too fast.

According to a recent national poll, 6 in 10 Americans believe that it’s time to increase the minimum wage, and Mainers will weigh in on the issue this year. Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, says his constituents feel it’s time to take action

“We’ve known it’s been coming for a while, but now it finally has the attention of our members — and once our members have started to look at it, they’re saying, ‘What can we do about this?’” he says.

Picard’s group, which represents restaurateurs, innkeepers, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and others, is proposing a competing ballot question. The details have not been established, but it would include less of an increase than the one proposed by Mainers For Fair Wages.

That measure incrementally raises the current $7.50 minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. The first boost, to $9, would come next year, followed by a $1-per-hour increase until 2020 to reach the $12 goal. After 2020, future raises to be indexed to inflation.

The question also seeks to raise the state’s tipped minimum wage from $3.75 per hour to $5 in 2017, increasing each year until it reaches the hourly rate of nontipped minimum wage earners.

Greg Dugal, the CEO of the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Restaurant Association, says his members have a real problem with those two provisions. If restaurateurs are ultimately forced to pay a nontipping minimum wage, he thinks tipping will become a thing of the past.

“There’s no question that people will either adopt no-tipping policies or the consumer will have their own bent on not providing a gratuity because somebody is already being paid,” Dugal says. “They’re going to make in that respect half of the wage that they do and I can assure you that in speaking with most servers, that’s not something that they’re interested in.”

But Mike Tipping says tipping, the practice, will not go away.

“The states that have one fair wage actually have higher levels of tipping and they have higher levels of people going out to eat,” he says. “In part, that’s because more people are able to afford to do that.”

Tipping is the communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, the progressive advocacy group that put a lot of boots on the ground to collect the more than 75,000 valid signatures needed to get the minimum wage question on the ballot. He’s not happy that the coalition of merchants and business owners plans to ask the Legislature to approve a competing measure.

“I think this is just an incredibly cynical move on their part to try and throw a spanner in the works, to try and deny a clear vote to the tens of thousands of Mainers who just signed petitions to get this on the ballot,” Tipping says.

The spanner, or wrench, Tipping refers to could come in the form of a competing measure that provides a minimum wage increase, but not as high as the one called for in the citizen intiative.

While lawmakers have the option of directly approving the $12-an-hour plan, they historically have passed such questions on to the voters. The Legislature would also have to approve the competing measure for the ballot.

In such a case, Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican, says Mainers could vote both questions down, approve one overwhelmingly or only by a plurality of votes. In which case, the issue would be anything but resolved.

“There is a provision for the highest vote if you will to go back for a second vote if it hasn’t made a majority of over 50 percent,” Katz says. “It’s a little bit complicated, but we’ll sort that out.”

The coalition for a competing measure plan to announce the details of its proposal next Tuesday. After that, it will be up to the Legislature to decide how or if the issue will be presented to the voters.