The Portland Green Independent Committee announced Thursday that the group intends to launch a citizens initiative to create a “livable wage” in Maine’s largest city by setting a new minimum at $15 an hour.

The effort comes as a proposal by Mayor Michael Brennan to increase the city’s minimum wage remains bogged down in the council’s Finance Committee, and as momentum builds for increasing the minimum wage statewide, either through legislative action or a statewide referendum.

Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50 an hour is 25 cents higher than the federal minimum. The proposal that the Greens want to put on a referendum ballot would effectively double the state’s minimum for workers in Portland.

Brennan’s proposal would establish a citywide minimum wage of $9.50 as of Jan. 1, 2016. That wage would increased to $10.10 the following year and $10.68 the year after. In 2019, increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Brennan’s proposal ran into opposition from the business community, especially from restaurant owners who would have to raise wages they pay to wait staff. Waiters and waitresses, along with other tip earners, must be paid a base wage of half the minimum wage.

Gov. Paul LePage also weighed in against Brennan’s proposal. During the gubernatorial election, LePage said establishing a citywide minimum wage would be unconstitutional – a position with which the city attorney disagrees.

Portland Greens, meanwhile, say Brennan’s proposed minimum wage is inadequate because those earners would still have difficulty affording to live in Portland, according to a press release.

“We don’t believe that people working 40 hours a week, or working at all, should be living in poverty,” said Lauren Besanko, vice chair of the Portland committee.

The Greens are seeking to establish a so-called living wage of $15 an hour through a citywide referendum. They argue a livable wage will lead to economic growth, rather than job losses, because more money will be flowing through the local economy.

“We find that to be completely reasonable,” Besanko said. “There is no evidence to support the argument that this is a job killer. Other communities that have done this have seen their economy grow.”

Such a sharp increase in wages would not be received very well by Portland businesses, according to Chris Hall, the chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber.

“Fifteen dollars an hour, I think, is a huge over reach, even in the city of Portland,” Hall said.

Hall said few people make the current state minimum wage in Portland’s relatively strong job market. Because $10 to $12 an hour wages are more common for entry level positions in the city, few businesses would be affected by Brennan’s proposal, he said. Raising that wage to $15 would cause businesses to increases prices to a point where common products would no longer be affordable, causing businesses to layoff workers or close down.

“We know businesses don’t have that kind of money in the till,” Hall said. “I wish that every business in Portland was just killing it and raking in the dough and super rich, but they’re not.”

City Clerk Kathy Jones said the Greens would have to submit the wording for their initiative to the city, so it could be reviewed by attorneys. Citizens initiatives cannot affect city appropriations, tax levies or the wages and hours of city workers, she said.

City officials could not immediately say how many employees make less than $15 an hour. But a report to the city’s Finance Committee indicates that 272 employees make $10 an hour or less.

If legal, Greens would have 80 days to collect 1,500 valid signatures to put the question to voters.

“If it gets to that point, I’m sure we will have a vigorous debate,” Hall said.

The Finance Committee was scheduled to take up Brennan’s proposal on March 14, but City Councilor and committee Chairman Nicholas Mavodones said it is being pushed back, so the group can discuss the financial impact of a recent audit of the city’s General Assistance program.

Brennan said he is still hopeful that the council will enact his proposal, which he described as “more reasonable,” than the one being put forward by the greens.

“I still feel the proposal we put on the table is a good solid proposal,” Brennan said. “Hopefully it’s going to be endorsed by the city council and we’ll move forward with it.”

The Greens, which spearheaded a successful referendum in 2013 in support of legalizing recreational use of marijuana, will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11, in Room 24 at City Hall to finalize the details of their planned referendum.

Besanko said the group will discuss how to phase in the livable wage, perhaps giving smaller businesses more time than larger businesses to meet the new wage requirement.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings