AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers salvaged an effort Thursday to get a $10-an-hour minimum wage proposal on the November ballot after the Democrat-led House rejected the idea earlier in the day.

The $10 wage would appear as a “competing measure” to the $12-an-hour minimum wage proposal that gained a spot on the ballot as a result of a statewide petition drive by progressive groups.

Republicans are backing the lower minimum, citing arguments that the $12 wage is too high and would be a hardship for some small businesses.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted 78-69 Thursday morning against an effort to put the $10 minimum wage proposal on the ballot.

In the afternoon, Republicans responded by attaching the $10 minimum wage as an amendment to a measure before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee that had been held over from the last session and was on track to be killed before it was amended. The move means the $10 wage proposal will go back to the House for another vote.

“This could keep the competing measure alive,” said Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, a member of the labor committee. “And that’s something I would completely support at this point.”

Democrats were livid, saying Republicans had voted against an identical minimum wage proposal last year.

“I’m really disappointed with this,” said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, who sponsored the measure that Republicans succeeded in amending, which concerned studying the issue of raising wages in Maine. “This is my bill and the clear intent was to kill it today … This is disrespectful, petty politics.”

But the sponsor of the amendment, Rep. Susan Austin, R-Gray, responded that the amendment was designed to give Mainers another option when considering a minimum wage increase.

The move by Republicans may have little practical effect because Democrats are expected to defeat Austin’s amendment when it gets to the House. However, the Republican-controlled Senate is more likely to support the measure, setting up a stalemate between the chambers that could prolong a debate that Democrats had hoped to snuff out early.

Business groups, led by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Restaurant Association, have been pushing the $10-an-hour alternative, warning that $12 an hour would harm Maine businesses. But the campaign for the alternative is running into the political realities of the minimum wage debate.

Frustrated by years of unsuccessful attempts to get a wage increase through the divided Legislature, a coalition of progressive groups including the Maine People’s Alliance and the AFL-CIO gathered more than 90,000 petition signatures to place their $12-an-hour proposal on the November ballot.

“It’s not up to us. It is up to the people of Maine,” said Herbig, who co-chairs the labor committee. “We tried, as a legislative body, to address this and we failed . . . so the people acted.”

In addition to raising the minimum wage in several steps to $12 an hour by 2020, the citizens’ initiative would also increase the minimum tipped wage for restaurant workers who receive tips – now pegged at $3.75 an hour – gradually until it reaches the full minimum in 2024.

But Republican lawmakers accused their Democratic counterparts of ignoring the concerns raised by businesses, particularly restaurants and businesses in rural Maine.

“We have heard from a number of small businesses, particularly restaurants, who have said they will have to lay off employees or close their doors if a $12-per-hour minimum wage passes,” House Minority Leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said in a statement. “This competing measure is a fair and sustainable compromise that offers some protection to small businesses, restaurant owners and their tipped workers. It’s frustrating to see Democrats continue to turn their backs on Maine’s small business community.”

Supporters of the minimum wage referendum countered that many of the Republicans pushing for a $10-an-hour competing measure consistently opposed more modest proposed increases as recently as last year. Instead, they suggested that Republicans and business groups are aiming to split the vote this November in hopes that neither will be enacted.

The proposal now goes to the Maine Senate.

 


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