There has been something that I’ve been meaning to tell Maine Democrats since Election Day:
OK, so you didn’t keep the White House, and you failed to take control of the U.S. Senate, which must have really hurt with that open Supreme Court seat left dangling. Ditto with the Maine Senate, which remains in Republican control.
But you won on Question 4, the strongest increase in the minimum wage in Maine history, bumping it to $12 an hour over three years and completely phasing out the subminimum wage for tipped workers.
Gov. LePage and a lot of Republicans hate it, but there’s not really much they can do about it because you still control the Maine House of Representatives. LePage can’t take money out of those workers’ pockets unless Democrats let him – and why would they want to do a thing like that?
This time, the Democrats win by doing nothing at all. Well played, Democrats.
Except something seems to be missing. Democrats are not acting like they won.
There has been no declaration that the law will go into effect without any meddling by the Legislature. Democrats have not stood together, promising that any cut to the minimum wage will have to be pried from their cold, dead hands.
Instead, there has been mumbling from some Democratic lawmakers that the restaurant industry lobbyists make a good point and maybe voters didn’t fully understand how the tip credit worked. There are 16 bills being drafted to scale back the increase, and they have not already been labeled “dead on arrival.” What’s going on?
It’s true that the minimum-wage bill was not a product of the Democratic Party or something passed by the Democrats in the Legislature.
Since even the most modest minimum-wage hike could not get through Maine’s divided government, activists from the Maine People’s Alliance drafted a question and took it directly to the people. The alliance and Democrats often agree on policy goals, but not always, and the bill that voters passed may have gone further than what some Democrats would have preferred, but so what?
If Democrats can’t all get behind increasing the minimum wage, what do they believe in?
We know the Republican recipe for a strong economy: low taxes and limited regulation to cut back the cost of doing business in the hopes that it will stimulate investment. Then, if you have to, dangle a few sweetheart deals to get big employers’ attention.
You may not agree with them, but at least you know what Republicans want to do.
Democrats have usually focused on the consumption side of the economy, which is why Franklin Roosevelt included the minimum wage in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It was not, as Republicans like to say now, intended as a training wage for teenagers. It was an attempt to boost demand in an economy that wasn’t growing.
Democrats have argued for decades that increasing wages among people who spend every cent they make stimulates growth more than letting rich people sock away money for their great-grandchildren. It is as unthinkable that Democrats would shy away from championing a minimum-wage hike as it would be for Republicans to be embarrassed about cutting the estate tax.
The part of the minimum-wage bill that is getting the most criticism is the elimination of the “tip credit,” a perky-sounding piece of law that has allowed employers to shell out as little as $3.75 an hour to anyone who took in more than $30 a month in tips.
Critics of the referendum rightly say that tipped workers are supposed to make at least the full minimum wage when their tips are counted, and employers are required to make up the difference if the tips don’t add up. They also point out that some servers make much more than the minimum wage under the current system, and they could be hurt if customers respond to higher prices by tipping less or staying home more.
They warn that restaurants might cut back their hours, reduce staff or just go out of business.
Maybe. Or maybe after the seven-year phase-in period (the tipped wage goes to $5 an hour this year and is increased $1 an hour each subsequent year until there’s only one minimum wage), everybody will figure out how to adapt. Lawmakers have enough to do before they fix problems that may never exist.
This is a tough time for Democrats, and they are asking themselves a lot of hard questions about what went wrong in 2016.
But finding the right response to the minimum-wage referendum should not be one of those hard questions.
It’s easy, Democrats: Celebrate. This time, you won.
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Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at: