AUGUSTA — The LePage administration and business groups urged lawmakers Tuesday to prohibit Maine cities and towns from enacting local minimum wages that are higher than the state’s minimum wage, something that’s now being considered in Portland and Bangor.

The effort to prevent local minimum wage increases comes as lawmakers consider at least eight bills that would increase Maine’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $8 to $12 an hour.

The Portland City Council is considering a proposal to increase the city’s minimum wage to $8.75 an hour starting in January, followed by 50-cent increases in 2019 and 2020. Bangor officials have discussed setting higher local wages as well.

Sen. Andre Cushing, the Hampden Republican who introduced L.D. 1361 at the LePage administration’s request, said the bill addresses the question of who has authority to increase the minimum wage, not whether the minimum should be increased.

The proposal prompted a lively debate about “local control” on the day that mayors of several of Maine’s largest cities accused Gov. Paul LePage of eroding the partnership between state and local governments.

Cushing and other supporters argued that allowing municipalities to set wages would create disparities between communities and could complicate matters for businesses with multiple locations.

“Decisions about who should set the minimum wage should be made at the state level because the impacts will be felt statewide,” said Cynthia Montgomery, LePage’s chief legal counsel.

The bill has the support of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, the Retailers Association of Maine, the Maine Restaurant Association and other business groups. Most of those organizations testified against bills seeking to raise Maine’s statewide minimum wage.

Opponents of L.D. 1361 accused the LePage administration and supporters of overextending the reach of state government.

“It just seems to me like this bill really is the ultimate in taking any kind of local control away from a municipality,” said Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who originally proposed a minimum wage of $9.50 an hour starting in July followed by stepped increases to $10.68 an hour in 2017, said the city is pursuing a local increase because of the financial reality of what it costs to live in Portland.

“We’re doing it, again, not out of frustration and not saying anything about the Legislature, but because we believe it makes good economic sense,” Brennan said. “And we think it will attract workers and we also believe in a social responsibility that people who work in the city should be able to live in the city.”

Tuesday’s hearing came one day before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee is expected to hold a work session on various bills to increase the statewide minimum wage. While the LePage administration opposes the bills, Republicans and Democrats have been talking behind closed doors about a potential compromise. A deal has yet to emerge, however.

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.

Political tensions are high between municipalities and the LePage administration.

Earlier Tuesday, members of the Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development urged lawmakers to pass a budget that broadens the sales tax but rejects LePage’s proposal to eliminate municipal revenue sharing. The mayors also accused LePage – himself a former Waterville mayor – of taking a harsh tone toward municipalities as he pushes for more regionalization and cooperation among towns.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins said the LePage administration “tends to be more confrontational,” whether it is with municipal leaders or members of his own party who have yet to endorse his sweeping tax overhaul plan.

“I just think it’s a management style and maybe not a leadership style,” Rollins said. “If you want to, for instance, have a consolidated economy where regions of the state come together, then offer the leadership and come forward with the municipalities as part of a partnership.”

LePage has repeatedly accused local leaders and the Maine Municipal Association of putting municipal government above the interests of taxpayers and of resisting calls for more collaboration among towns. The governor’s proposal to eliminate revenue sharing – the program that sends money back to municipalities to reduce the reliance on property taxes – appears unlikely to pass the Legislature.

Brennan, Rollins, and Mayors Donald Pilon of Saco and Colleen Hilton of Westbrook each gave examples of how they are working with neighboring communities in areas such as fire protection, facilities management and public transportation.

“We are always looking at ways that we can consolidate, ways that we can be more effective and ways that we can be more efficient,” said Brennan. “But critical to all of that is having a strong partnership in Augusta, and one of the things that we have seen over the last several years is that the partnership has continued to erode.”

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