AUGUSTA  — The Maine House voted 77-69 along party lines Tuesday to reject a proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $8 an hour over the next two years.

The vote marked a change from recent years, when Democratic majorities in the Legislature routinely approved increases.

Republican lawmakers, now in the majority, argued Tuesday that an increase would serve as a mandate that harms businesses. Democrats said struggling, low-wage workers could use the extra $10 a week to buy necessities.

“This is about choice. Businesses choose to pay more. If you’re doing a good job, if you’re a valuable employee, there is nothing that says you can’t pay your employees more,” said Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, House chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. She said Maine has raised the minimum wage in eight of the last 10 years.

“But for us to sit here and mandate what our businesses have to pay their employees, what minimum wage should be, is not a good strategy, especially in this economy,” Prescott said.

Maine is one of 17 states with minimum wages higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Twenty-three states match the federal rate.

With the exception of New Hampshire, which matches the federal rate, all New England states have minimum wages higher than $7.25 — Connecticut’s is $8.25; Vermont’s is $8.15; Massachusetts’s is $8; and Rhode Island’s is $7.40.

Rep. Rob Hunt, D-Buxton, said the proposal, L.D. 447, would provide a “modest increase” to workers in Maine.

“We all know that you can not realistically survive on minimum wage,” he said.

Other Democrats argued that increasing the rate would help provide an incentive for Mainers who now are on welfare.

Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, said, “I ask you all to consider today that raising the minimum wage is one important step to getting people off of these assistance programs, providing more stability for working families.”

Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, called minimum wage “a floor of conscience.”

But one Republican lawmaker, Lance Harvell of Farmington, equated raising the minimum wage with what’s known as Munchausen by proxy syndrome.

“What it is, is when a mother keeps her child sick so her child will need her,” he said. “It never really resonated all that much with me until I showed up here and realized that a necessity for the nanny state is a sick population.”

Harvell said that if lawmakers want to give all Mainers an extra $10 a week, they could do it by cutting taxes.

“But no, because we suffer that human delusion of control, we have got to take it from them and then piecemeal it back where we think they need it and leave someone else to cover the bet,” he said.

The bill has yet to be considered by the Senate.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]