AUGUSTA — Republicans and Democrats at the State House are negotiating with business groups on a possible compromise to increase Maine’s minimum wage.

Although the parties have yet to reach a deal, several people involved in the negotiations expressed cautious optimism that the sides could agree upon the first increase since Maine went to $7.50 an hour in 2009.

The unknowns are how large of an increase could pass the Legislature and, equally important, whether a wage hike would get past Gov. Paul LePage, who in 2013 vetoed a gradual increase to $9 an hour.

“There are certainly a large number of members in my caucus who are not interested at all, but then there are others among us who are feeling a little more flexible,” said Sen. Amy Volk, a Scarborough Republican involved in the discussions. “And the Legislature needs to be in control of this process … as opposed to a referendum.”

The threat of a voter referendum to increase the minimum wage – led by the liberal grassroots activist group the Maine People’s Alliance – is clearly helping to drive the negotiations. Other factors include Wal-Mart’s recent decision to increase the company’s lowest wage to $10 an hour nationwide, and strong public support in Maine for a minimum wage hike both in polls and in public testimony.

“We want to have an honest discussion,” said Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the assistant Senate majority leader. “There clearly are a lot of issues that have come up.”

WAGE BILLS TABLED DURING TALKS

But Republicans also appear to be seeking concessions in return for a wage increase.

Cushing, who indicated he could support a “gradual, stepped increase” in the minimum wage, said he is talking with his Democratic counterparts about ways to make it easier for young people under 16 to work part time and earn a paycheck. Under current law, Maine residents younger than 16 must obtain a work permit from a school superintendent to work, and also face other restrictions.

On Tuesday, members of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voted to table seven bills – all sponsored by Democrats – in order to allow the closed-door negotiations to continue.

Those bills propose raising Maine’s minimum wage to anywhere from $8 an hour to $12 an hour. At $7.50 an hour, Maine’s wage is 25 cents higher than the federal minimum, but lower than the minimum paid in every New England state except New Hampshire. Maine’s current minimum translates to $15,600 a year for a full-time worker putting in 40 hours a week.

Neither Volk nor Democratic Rep. Erin Herbig of Belfast – the Senate and House co-chairs of the legislative committee – would discuss whether the negotiators are coalescing around a particular hourly wage. Both mentioned the importance of gaining support from the business community.

“We are trying to look for something that is going to work for everybody,” Herbig said.

OPPOSITION IN SOME QUARTERS

It was evident Tuesday that Maine’s business groups remain divided on the issue.

Representatives from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce – the state’s largest business organization and an influential voice in the State House – have been involved in the discussions. Peter Gore, the chamber’s vice president for government relations, said the minimum wage issue is not typically the top item for members, but is important to some businesses.

“We are open to hearing what they come up with,” he said.

But the Maine chapter for the National Federation of Independent Business, which to date has not been given a seat at the negotiating table, expressed “dismay … that some segments of the business community appear to be flashing a green light on raising the $7.50 minimum wage to upwards of $9 an hour.” The group raised concerns that raising the minimum wage will force employers to increase other wages as well, adding to their costs.

“Regardless of their motives for doing so, even a seemingly modest increase could be terrible for business and will disproportionately affect small employers,” the federation’s state director, David Clough, said in a written statement. “People tend to lose sight of the full cost of a minimum wage increase, which can be substantial to labor-intensive small businesses.”

INCOMES AND PAY LEVELS IN MAINE

Democrats, labor unions and left-leaning groups have shifted their focus to state capitals after failing to move the ball at the federal level in recent years. Prospects for a higher federal minimum wage dimmed last November after Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress.

Maine is one of 29 states that require wages higher than the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Eleven states – including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont – plus the District of Columbia have raised minimum wages within the past year.

According to Maine Department of Labor statistics, roughly 20,000 Mainers earned the minimum wage or less in 2013. That’s about 3 percent of the roughly 650,000 people working in the state that year.

Among the group earning the minimum wage, 44 percent had food service jobs where tips are commonplace, and 71 percent worked part time. Fifty-two percent of those earning the minimum wage were under age 25.

The median household income in Maine was $50,121 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 13 percent of Maine’s roughly 554,000 households earned less than $15,000 a year from 2009 to 2013.

MORE THAN SMALL INCREASE SOUGHT

Matt Schlobohm with the Maine AFL-CIO said getting Maine’s wages up to $10 an hour “would be progress,” but that any agreement should also index future wages to inflation in order to ensure workers maintain their buying power.

But Schlobohm and Ben Chin of the Maine People’s Alliance also said the Legislature must take “meaningful action,” which suggests the two organizations will not be satisfied with a modest increase. Chin is skeptical that the Legislature will pass something “meaningful” and avoid a LePage veto, but said his organization would seriously consider anything that emerges from the legislative negotiations.

Like the business federation on the other side of the issue, the Maine People’s Alliance has not been a party to those talks.

“We’ve made no secret that we are considering going to the ballot with our referendum,” Chin said.