Democratic lawmakers and liberal interest groups are hoping that 2015 will be the year that a minimum wage increase survives the political juggernaut in Augusta, bolstered by an improving economy and polls showing strong public support for higher hourly pay.

Republicans and key business groups aren’t exactly embracing the idea, but the prospect of a statewide referendum on raising the minimum wage could give traditional opponents a reason to consider an increase.

“I think it does put some pressure on us to get something done,” said Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, co-chair of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. “But we have a lot of people who need to be convinced, especially with what is happening with Wal-Mart and other retailers.”

During the past two weeks, Wal-Mart and the parent company of T.J. Maxx announced plans to increase their lowest wages to $10 an hour by next year. More than 20 states approved higher minimum wages that went into effect on Jan. 1 even as Congress remains deadlocked on the issue at the federal level.

Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50 an hour is 25 cents higher than the federal minimum but has not changed since October 2009. That translates to $15,600 a year for a full-time, 40-hour a week worker in Maine. The median household income in Maine was $50,121 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Precise statistics on minimum wage earners in Maine were not available, but the Census Bureau estimated that 13.2 percent of Maine’s roughly 554,000 households earned less than $15,000 a year from 2009 to 2013.

Democratic lawmakers have introduced at least seven bills to increase the minimum wage to levels ranging from $8 an hour to $12 an hour as they continue to focus on an issue that was central to Democrats’ campaigns in Maine and nationally last year.

GROUP: LONG WAY TO ‘LIVING WAGE’

The first taste of the legislative battle came Wednesday, when the Maine People’s Alliance – a liberal advocacy and policy group – held a news conference to draw attention to the issue and highlight a new report showing the gap between Maine’s minimum wage and what the group considers a living wage.

The report by the liberal Alliance for a Just Society found that 55 percent of the job openings in Maine last year paid less than $15.82 an hour, which the group regards as a “living wage” for a single adult. About 87 percent of the job openings in the state paid less than the $28.86 an hour that the group considers a living wage for a single parent with two children.

The Maine People’s Alliance endorsed a bill by Rep. Gina Melaragno, D-Auburn, that would increase Maine’s minimum wage gradually to $12 an hour by 2020 and then index the wage to the state’s average wage in future years.

“I want to make sure my constituents who work full time can make ends meet,” Melaragno said. “If we want to succeed as a state we need to make sure that everyone is paid a fair wage and everyone gets a fair shot. Addressing the issue of economic inequality should be a major priority of lawmakers.”

BUSINESS GROUPS MONITOR TREND

Polls consistently show strong support for increasing the minimum wage in Maine. A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll conducted last September found that 75 percent of the 589 people surveyed supported raising the federal minimum wage, with 60 percent expressing strong support.

Organizations that represent Maine businesses in Augusta are not yet weighing in on the minimum wage proposals.

“Obviously, the best course of action would be for the feds to take action on this issue,” said Peter Gore, vice president for government relations at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “We are watching the issue carefully.”

Although the minimum wage is not the top-priority issue for all of the chamber’s members, “it is a very important issue to our small-business members,” Gore said. The chamber opposes annual minimum-wage increases linked to inflation or any other form of indexing, he said.

Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, said indexing the minimum wage is also a major concern for his organization’s members because it does not take into account the economic climate in any particular year.

Like Gore, Picard said his organization is waiting for all the minimum wage bills to be printed and reviewed before taking a position.

MIXED VIEWS ON BILLS’ CHANCES

Sen. Volk said she expects her committee to hold public hearings on the minimum wage bills this month. Asked how members of her Republican caucus view the proposals, Volk said opinions are mixed but many feel the recent steps taken by Wal-Mart could lead to higher wages throughout the retail industry without the need for state action.

“I can’t imagine that if we were to agree on something and pass a bill that it would be $10 an hour,” Volk said. “I think it will be much lower.”

Other Republicans are more skeptical, given that Republicans control the Maine Senate and Democrats control the House.

“It’s difficult for me to see a path for (any minimum wage bill) to get through the Legislature, and I’d be really surprised if it got to the governor’s desk and he signed it,” said Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst.

Lockman and Gov. Paul LePage are once again pushing “right to work” legislation that would allow workers to opt out of paying dues to a labor union at a unionized workplace. Lockman said making Maine a “right-to-work state” would help attract “optimum-wage or career-wage” jobs that would be more effective in lifting people out of poverty.

Labor unions and their Democratic allies strongly disagree with such statements and describe right-to-work bills as blatant attempts to weaken unions. The Legislature rejected right-to-work bills in 2013.

“I will be the first to acknowledge that it will be very difficult to get (a right-to-work bill) through the House,” Lockman said.

BALLOT INITIATIVE A POSSIBILITY

Absent legislative action, the Maine People’s Alliance has indicated that it is considering whether to begin working on a ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage.

“I think it is pretty clear that Mainers are not willing to wait any longer,” said Amy Halsted, the group’s associate director. “We are hopeful and we are glad that this issue is being discussed in the Legislature. But we are advancing the issue and looking at all of our options, and a statewide ballot initiative is definitely one of them.”

Given the choice of the two venues – either the Legislature or the ballot box – Gore said the Maine State Chamber would prefer to see lawmakers tackle the minimum wage issue.

“I think we would rather see the Legislature address this issue as the elected policymakers,” he said.

This story was updated at 8:26 a.m. on Thursday, March 5 to correct the name of the director of the Maine People’s Alliance.