A long day of testimony is in store for the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee with 10 bills aimed at chipping away at or preserving the minimum wage law up for debate.
Wrangling over the minimum wage is perennial at the State House, but this year brings a tricky balancing act for legislators, who in the larger picture are contemplating whether to make changes to a law enacted by the votes of 55.4 percent of Mainers in the November 2016 statewide referendum.
In case you’ve been in Antarctica or in a coma since then (welcome back!) here’s a refresher: The referendum increased Maine’s hourly minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 this year and will ramp it up to $12 by 2020. The minimum wage will continue to climb according to cost-of-living increases thereafter. The law also eliminated the tip credit for employers, which means tipped workers’ base salaries were also increased and will continue to climb with the idea that tips will be phased out.
There has been a lot of buzz preceding and following that vote but exactly what changes are on the table five months later? Here’s a rundown of the bills being introduced today:
This morning, three bills aimed at the tip credit will be presented. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta and Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn both have proposals to restore the tip credit and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is proposing a commission to study how the phase-out of the subminimum wage would affect tipped employees over the long term.
This afternoon, broader proposals are in store:
- LD 774 would create a “training wage” for people younger than 20 years old that is $1 above the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour. This bill comes from Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who is an influential member of the Legislature’s budget committee.
- Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington is proposing to limit Maine’s minimum wage to the New England average in LD 775. Currently, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont have minimum wages of $10 or more. Rhode Island’s is $9.60 and New Hampshire is at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Harvell has a second bill, LD 778, that would eliminate future increases to Maine’s minimum wage based on inflation.
- Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, proposes restoring the tip credit for employers and setting Maine’s minimum wage at the New England average in LD 831.
- In LD 971, Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred proposes exempting from minimum wage laws people younger than 18, are claimed as dependents by another income taxpayer or are employed seasonally.
- Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, is proposing in LD 991 the establishment of a separate minimum wage for minors that is 75 percent of the amount for everyone else.
- Rep. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, proposes in LD 1005 to leave the minimum wage at its current rate but eliminate future codified increases and restore the tip credit.
As lawmaking-by-referendum becomes an annual event in Maine, the likelihood that the Legislature would make changes isn’t as egregious or uncommon as it once was. There are a bevy of alterations proposed for the four referendums from 2016. Since 1990, a total of 22 citizen initiatives have passed at the ballot box and of those, 14 were then amended by the Legislature.
Examples include the 1982 initiative to eliminate indexing of the income tax to the consumer price index and the 2004 decision by voters for state government to fund at least 55 percent of the cost of public schools, which has never been met.
This year could end up being a landmark year for citizen initiatives in Maine, but not because of the fight over the details of the minimum wage, education surtax or recreational marijuana bills. An ancillary and more impactful debate that is also raging is whether it should be harder for the citizens of Maine to enact laws on their own.