AUGUSTA — Democrats in the Maine House blocked another attempt Thursday to place a second minimum wage proposal on the November ballot.

Although the debate is far from over, House Democrats signaled Thursday that they remain largely united in opposing a “competing measure” to the $12-an-hour minimum wage proposal headed to voters this fall. The 78-67 vote suggests the $10-an-hour proposal floated by business groups – with Republican backing – has little chance of making the ballot.

The citizen initiative that already has qualified for the ballot would increase Maine’s minimum wage in several steps from the current $7.50 to $12 an hour by 2020. The proposal was spearheaded by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, the Maine AFL-CIO and other groups that collected more than 75,000 signatures to send the issue to voters.

Business groups and their Republican allies are now pushing to offer voters an a more modest alternative that would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2020. But their only hope at this late stage is for the Legislature to approve a “competing measure,” as allowed under the Maine Constitution.

On Thursday, the Democrat-controlled House killed a related bill before Republicans were able to offer their $10-an-hour wage proposal as an amendment. The Republican-controlled Senate can still bring up the competing measure on the Senate floor.

Supporters of the $12-an-hour proposal – including many legislative Democrats – view the alternative and its backers with skepticism, often suggesting that the real aim of the competing measure is to divide the vote in hopes that neither will pass. Business groups strongly dispute such assertions.

“The business community is committed to supporting the proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour,” said Peter Gore, vice president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which worked with the Maine Restaurant Association to craft the alternative. “We have said it in the past and I’m reiterating it today. The business community does not want to be in a position of having to take a ‘no’ position on this referendum. There is a better way.”

Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, co-chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, said after Thursday’s House vote that she doesn’t see a path forward for the alternative. Republicans had tried to use a placeholder bill that Herbig sponsored last year, L.D. 674, An Act To Support Maine’s Working Families, to offer their competing measure.

“Because we as a Legislature have failed to address the minimum wage, the people of Maine took the matter into their own hands,” Herbig said in a written statement. “Today we said ‘no’ to an underhanded maneuver that aimed to thwart the citizen initiative.”

But Rep. Susan Austin, the Gray Republican who helped craft the $10-an-hour alternative, said the competing measure would give “all Maine people a choice on the referendum.”

In addition to raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020, the citizen initiative also would gradually increase the minimum tipped wage for restaurant workers who receive tips – now pegged at $3.75 an hour – until it reached the full minimum in 2024. The Maine Restaurant Association has warned that eliminating the so-called “tip credit” would dramatically increase labor costs for restaurant owners, forcing them to increase prices and potentially driving some out of business.

The Maine Senate could take up the minimum wage issue again next week.

 


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