Gov. Paul LePage has stepped into the partisan battle over Maine’s minimum wage.
LePage has submitted a proposal that would raise the minimum to $10 an hour in steps, by the year 2020. Republicans are hoping that it would compete with a referendum question on the fall ballot that would call for a larger increase.
The issue of whether to raise Maine’s minimum wage, and by how much, has been a major theme for this Legislature. A proposal to raise the minimum to $12 an hour over the next four years garnered enough signatures for placement on the November ballot, but has shaken up many in the business community who fear that many employers may have to cut back on staff to pay the higher salaries.
LePage says the $12 plan is too much, too fast, as he explained at a recent town meeting event in Mexico.
“It’s going to put people on social security in dire trouble,” he says. “And try to find a job if you’re 16-20, when there’s all kinds of people out there unemployed with experience. You’re never going to find a job.”
And many fellow Republicans in the Legislature agree.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing of Newport, who serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, asked LePage to introduce the $10 plan as an alternative. Cushing says he has been told by several members of the business community, particularly in tourism, that they will be forced to consider cutting their workforces if the higher minimum wage is approve by voters.
“We assessed this,” he says. “We looked at how many people are getting paid minimum wage. It is going to have a bad effect on entry-level people, which are critical in this economy.”
But the Democrat-controlled House has already rejected attempts to put a competing measure on the ballot.
House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan says the failure of Republicans to reach an agreement on the minimum wage increase last year is what led to the ballot petition drive.
“Sen. Cushing and the governor had an opportunity last year to compromise with us, and to bring forth these continued attempts at a competing measure sort of distracts from the other things we are doing right now,” he says.
And McCabe says no matter how many times Republicans try to push a competing measure, Democrats will not support it.
“We have taken several votes on a competing measure, but at this time we have really moved on and continued to work on other issues,” he says. “I don’t imagine this is the last attempt that we will see, but nothing has really changed.”
Cushing says this may not be the last attempt this session to get the lower wage on the ballot, because he and others consider it so important for the state’s largest industry: tourism.
“If some people want to play the hostage game, so be it,” he says. “But to me it’s about having an honest discussion, and I believe the Democratic leadership in the House needs to sit down at the table with us and say something besides no.”
But Cushing acknowledges that no meeting has been scheduled.
The competing measure put forth by the governor will be debated and likely passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, but its chances of even being debated in the House remain to be seen.