AUGUSTA — A bill that would raise Maine’s minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016 and link it to inflation thereafter drew one step closer to passage Tuesday with a party-line vote in the Senate.
With Democratic support, the Senate approved the bill 19-16 after a fresh round of debate reflecting competing economic and political ideologies.
Democrats contended that raising the minimum wage from the current $7.50 would help the working poor, while Republicans argued that it would hurt the businesses that hire young and unskilled workers.
Sen. Dick Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth, voted against the bill.
L.D. 611, which was approved last week by the House, requires more procedural votes before going to Gov. Paul LePage. The governor is expected to veto it, but his office has declined to comment on the bill until LePage has had a chance to review it.
The measure reflects a national drive, led largely by Democrats, to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. President Obama and other Democrats say the present national minimum of $7.25 hasn’t kept pace with the rising cost of basic living necessities. They say the increase would boost the purchasing power of low-income Americans and help lift them to the middle class.
Republicans have opposed such measures, saying they are well-intentioned but ineffective at reducing poverty and potentially harmful to small-business owners. A coalition of business groups opposes L.D. 611, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
The bill would phase in the wage increase, to $8 an hour in 2014, $8.50 an hour in 2015 and $9 an hour in 2016. The inflation indexing would begin in 2017.
About 20,000 workers were paid at or below minimum wage in Maine in 2011, according to the state Department of Labor.
On Tuesday, Democratic senators said the increase would lift people out of poverty and close the wage gap between men and women.
“We always talk about jobs, jobs, jobs. But it’s time to start talking about jobs that pay us a livable wage,” said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford. “If we want to bring our economy out of recession, we need to make sure people are compensated fairly for their labor.”
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said Maine will have the second-highest minimum wage in the country if the bill is enacted.
He said it wouldn’t help low-income earners because it would make it harder for businesses to hire young and low-skilled people entering the work force.
Maine is one of 18 states with minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25, according to U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. Twenty-three other states are weighing legislation to increase their minimum wages, according to an assessment by the National Conference of State Legislatures on Feb. 13.
The liberal Economic Policy Institute recently projected that increasing the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour would generate $60 billion in new household spending in two years.
However, some economists have argued that raising the minimum wage during a recession would stunt business growth and make it more difficult for businesses to hire young, inexperienced and unskilled workers.
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said that employing fewer young workers would hurt businesses and the state’s social fabric. He paraphrased the economist Milton Friedman, who once blamed the federal minimum wage law for driving up unemployment among teenagers.
“The high rate of unemployment among teenagers, and especially black teenagers, is both a scandal and a serious source of social unrest. Yet it is largely a result of minimum wage laws,” Friedman wrote.
Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, said the bill would hurt businesses.
“If we don’t have employers, there will be no employees,” he said. “If you bring up the bottom, you’re going to bring up the people above the bottom. Then what?”
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said that although some employers are complaining about an abundance of unskilled workers, too many companies don’t pay a living wage.
“As much as we have a skills gap in Maine, we have a wage gap,” Jackson said.
During the debate, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, tried to undercut the argument that raising the minimum wage would hurt business. Alfond, who owns Bayside Bowl, a bowling alley on Alder Street in Portland, said employers have a choice to pay more than the minimum wage.
He said the bill’s phased-in increase would yield a modest wage increase that could make a “huge difference” to working families.
Maine’s median hourly wage for all occupations was $15.63 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.
Raising the minimum to $9 an hour would yield a gross annual income of $18,720 for an individual working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.
“We should reject the notion that supporting the working poor is bad for business,” Alfond said. “Every day I look at my balance sheet and know that’s not true.”
Raising the minimum wage appears to have support in national opinion polls. A USA Today/Pew Research Center poll in early March showed that 71 percent of Americans support Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:
CORRECTION: This story was updated Wednesday, April 3, 2013 to reflect that the Maine Senate’s vote took place on Tuesday, not Thursday.