AUGUSTA – A progressive group has announced it is starting a petition drive aimed at putting a state minimum wage increase on the Maine ballot in 2016.

The Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine AFL-CIO, an organization representing labor unions, announced the referendum campaign Thursday at the State House. They want to raise the state’s current minimum wage of $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour in 2017 and then by $1 a year until 2020, when it would reach $12 an hour. It would then be indexed to the cost of living.

The referendum campaign comes as lawmakers are considering several bills to increase the state minimum wage and as Portland considers an initiative to raise the city’s minimum. The legislative proposals face long odds, given Republican opposition and a likely veto from Gov. Paul LePage. The governor, who rejected several minimum wage bills during his first term, has said that raising the minimum wage in Maine would make the state less competitive and hurt small businesses.

Nonetheless, business groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, are wary of the voter-initiated wage increase and are closely monitoring a legislative effort aimed at reaching a compromise on a modest increase. That measure, brokered by Sens. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the Senate assistant majority leader; and Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, co-chairwoman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee; has not yet emerged from committee.

Even a compromise bill would likely face stiff opposition. The National Federation of Independent Business has said it would oppose efforts raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Cushing said in a statement Thursday that dramatic increases in the minimum wage would simply force businesses to increase the cost of goods and services for all consumers, including those being paid minimum wage.

“A better approach is to continue working to improve Maine’s business environment to attract higher-paying jobs for Mainers,” he said.

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 worker putting in 40 hours a week.

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 those earning the minimum, 44 percent had food service jobs where tips are commonplace, and 71 percent worked part time. Fifty-two percent 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.

Advocates for the referendum submitted their application to begin the signature drive Thursday.

The campaign, Mainers for Fair Wages, will attempt to collect more than 60,000 signatures to put the question on the November 2016 ballot.

The campaign said the effort will include several statewide organizations.

“This referendum will help over 125,000 Mainers who are working hard, often at more than one job.

“We’ll need support from all over the state to make it happen,” said Amy Halsted, who signed the application on behalf of the 32,000 members of the Maine People’s Alliance and will serve as campaign manager for Mainers for Fair Wages, in a statement.

The alliance has established a website,, where people can obtain information and sign up to show their support.

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