WASHINGTON — Two of the three top contenders for Maine governor said Wednesday that they support increasing the minimum wage, as President Obama and Democratic leaders across the country push what they hope will be a major issue in the 2014 campaigns.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent candidate Eliot Cutler both support a minimum wage increase, while Republican Gov. Paul LePage opposes raising it beyond the current $7.50 per hour. But there are also differences between the two supporters.
Michaud, a union member who sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage when he was Maine Senate president, said “now is the time for action” and vowed to push the issue at the state level if Congress doesn’t act.
Cutler talks of increasing the minimum wage as part of a “broader” economic plan.
“To view increasing the minimum wage as the answer to our economic challenges … that’s wrong,” Cutler said. “We need a plan to build economic activity in the state of Maine. We don’t have it now and we haven’t had it for decades.”
On Tuesday, President Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for all federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. The change, which will apply to all new and renegotiated federal contracts beginning Jan. 1, 2015, fulfills a pledge that Obama made during his State of the Union address last month and is intended to increase pressure on Congress to follow suit.
“I’m going to do what I can. Congress should do what it needs to do,” Obama said during a signing ceremony at the White House. “I will not give up on this fight, no matter how long it takes. America deserves a raise.”
The White House estimates that the increase will benefit several hundred thousand federal contract employees, from concession workers at national parks to individuals who serve food to troops and maintain the grounds of military bases.
A recent survey by the National Employment Law Project found that 77 percent of government contract employees who work in food service, retail or janitorial service earn less than $10 per hour. The survey also found that about 4 in 10 of those workers depend on public assistance, The Associated Press reported.
Maine’s $7.50 an hour minimum wage is 25 cents higher than the federal minimum. State lawmakers last increased the rate in October 2009.
Last year, Maine’s Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a bill to increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016 and to tie future levels to inflation, but LePage vetoed the bill.
On Wednesday, LePage’s campaign adviser, Brent Littlefield, declined to provide a comment from the governor on the issue. Instead, Littlefield referred to an April 2013 radio address in which LePage predicted raising the minimum wage would hurt low-income Mainers by prompting businesses to reduce their workforces.
“It won’t make us more business friendly, and it won’t increase anyone’s standard of living,” LePage said at the time.
Littlefield also trumpeted tax cuts pushed by LePage and enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 that cut taxes by $150 million.
“I would note that Gov. LePage ushered in the largest tax cut in Maine state history which is eliminating state level income taxes for Maine’s lowest paid working people – eliminating that withholding portion of their paycheck for nearly 70,000 Maine people,” Littlefield wrote.
Michaud is co-sponsor of a bill in the U.S. House – the Fair Minimum Wage Act – that would set the federal minimum wage at $10.10 an hour. While the effort appears to have substantial support in the Democratic-controlled Senate, the Republican-controlled House is not expected to approve a 39 percent increase to the minimum in an election year.
Michaud is already using the issue in his campaign. Before the president’s actions on Wednesday, Michaud’s campaign sent an email blast to supporters urging them to sign onto a petition calling on Congress to adopt the $10.10 minimum wage.
“People who work hard and play by the rules should be able to make ends meet, feed their kids, heat their homes and not live in poverty – period,” Michaud said in a written statement to the Portland Press Herald. “Study after study proves raising the minimum wage will create jobs, improve the workforce, and have a positive effect on the overall economy.”
Cutler was criticized by some Democrats and progressives last year when he indicated he did not support a minimum wage hike passed “in a vacuum.”
“If that’s all we do, we shouldn’t do it,” Cutler wrote in an April 2013 Facebook posting.
Roughly 10 months later, the independent said he would not have vetoed the boost to $9 an hour. He also said $10.10 an hour “doesn’t seem off the mark” and that future increases should be tied to inflation.
But he continues to insist that any increase in the minimum wage needs to be part of a larger strategy to improve the education system and the health of Maine workers.
“I support increasing the minimum wage, but I want it to be done by the federal government because I don’t want to see Maine (businesses) disadvantaged compared to other states,” Cutler said in an interview.
So will minimum wage become a major issue in the 2014 election in Maine?
Brian Duff, associate professor of political science at the University of New England in Biddeford, said LePage might suffer politically if the issue gets considerable attention.
“This is an issue that seems, to a lot of people, like a no-brainer: you can’t make a living on minimum wage,” said Duff, noting that full-time pay at minimum wage is just $15,600 annually.
At the same time, many of Le-Page’s supporters likely agree with the governor’s stance. So Duff said the issue then becomes most critical to Michaud and Cutler, already battling for independent and moderate voters.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: