Voters helped determine the fate of Maine’s lowest-income workers Tuesday by backing a ballot initiative to raise the statewide hourly minimum wage from the current $7.50 to $12 by 2020.
The minimum wage measure, known as Question 4, was one of five voter initiatives on the ballot Tuesday in Maine. As of 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Associated Press called the vote with 70 percent of precincts reporting, with 56 percent of voters for Question 4 and 44 percent against.
Mainers for Fair Wages campaign manager Amy Halsted said she was confident as early results suggested a likely victory for the Question 4 organizer.
“I think this is a common-sense solution to the fact that so many Mainers are working around the clock and often two or three jobs to pay the bills,” she said.
Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, said he was disappointed with the way the vote was going. The restaurant industry opposes Question 4 because it would ultimately eliminate the reduced minimum wage for servers and other workers who rely heavily on tips.
“Obviously it’s not looking great for (opponents of) Question 4, which is an important one for restaurants,” Hewins said. Advocates for a higher minimum wage filed more than 76,400 petition signatures in January to put the measure on the November ballot. Backed by the Maine People’s Alliance, the Maine AFL-CIO and the Maine Small Business Coalition, it would raise the state’s hourly minimum wage to $9 in 2017, followed by annual $1 increases until 2020. Subsequent increases would be indexed to inflation.
On Tuesday, Kaylin Duchaine, 21, of Lewiston said she voted for the minimum wage hike, adding that it was long overdue.
“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, so let’s even the playing field a little bit,” she said.
Duchaine said she believes that increasing the minimum wage would be a positive change, especially for the disabled, who often work part-time jobs for minimum wage.
But Michael Bernard of Lewiston, also 21, said he voted against increasing the minimum wage because even if it boosted incomes for low-wage earners, it also would increase the costs of goods and services.
“The more wages go up, the more prices go up, and the less our dollar is going to be worth,” Bernard said.
An enthusiastic Yes on 4 crowd began forming at 8 p.m. at Stroudwater Distillery at Thompson’s Point in Portland, also the site for the Yes on 2 campaign, the initiative to add an income tax surcharge on wealthy Mainers to fund K-12 education. An hour later, the distillery filled with a few dozen people, who mostly watched results of the presidential race on TV. Volunteers Alex Serrano and Maximillian Salunek said raising the minimum wage would make college and rent more affordable.
Salunek, from South Portland, said it’s about a fair wage.
“The pay difference between CEOs and the bottom line workers is ridiculous. It’s time to change that,” he said.
Supporters of Question 4 have argued that raising Maine’s minimum wage would enable more workers to meet their financial obligations without help from taxpayer-funded government programs. They also said it would boost consumer spending in the state and help grow the economy.
Opponents, including the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and representatives of the state’s restaurant and hospitality industries, have said it would devastate many small businesses, particularly those in northern and rural Maine. They also said many entry-level jobs would be cut as a result of the higher minimum wage, and prices on consumer goods would increase.
The primary political action group supporting Question 4, Mainers for Fair Wages, raised nearly $828,000, according to state campaign finance reports. Two primary opposition groups, Restaurateurs for a Strong Maine Economy and Maine People for Maine Jobs, raised a total of about $149,000.
A Portland Press Herald poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in mid-September found that six out of 10 Mainers supported the increase, although it also found a majority of respondents believed it would hurt small businesses.
Erin Thomas, a 45-year-old artist who lives in Berwick, said she voted yes on Question 4 to help correct a growing imbalance between wages and the cost of living.
“The cost of rent and energy and food have nearly doubled in a decade as wages have stagnated,” Thomas said. “Something has to give.”
Kathy and Robert Carroll, a married couple living in Gray, said they both voted no on Question 4. They believe it would lead to an increase in the cost of consumer goods, which they said would hurt seniors living on fixed incomes.
“You’re looking at a bigger gap in spending power of retirees,” said Robert Carroll, a 65-year-old attorney.
Gloria Houlne, a retail supervisor who lives in Berwick, said she voted for the wage increase.
“I am 57 years old, I’ve been at my job for over 10 years, and I still do not make $14 an hour. My hours are limited to 32, even though I have insurance and am considered full time,” Houline said. I do not earn enough to support myself in the real world. I do not take home enough to have money taken for an IRA or savings. Will I have to work til the day I die? Most probably.”
Freeport resident Lindsay Edmunds, a 28-year-old insurance company worker, said she agonized over Question 4 and ended up voting against it.
Edmunds said she understands why it’s important to pay workers more, but she is worried that the cost to small businesses would be too high. It was a tough decision, she said. “I had to struggle with it,” Edmunds said. “I stood there for about 10 minutes deciding.”
Staff writers Bob Keyes, Scott Thistle, Peter McGuire and Randy Billings contributed to this report.