AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted 19-16 to raise the minimum wage Tuesday.
The bill would increase the state’s minimum wage by $1.50 an hour from $7.50 to $9.00 in a three-stage approach starting in July 2014. Democrats supported the bill. Republicans opposed it.
Tuesday’s vote in the Senate follows last week’s 86-58 House vote to pass the bill. All but one House Democrat, Rep. Alan Casavant of Biddeford, voted for the minimum wage increase. All House Republicans opposed it.
The bill, LD 611, would raise the minimum wage annually in three 50-cent increments starting July 1, 2014. After rising to $9 an hour in 2016, the minimum wage would then increase annually based on changes in the Consumer Price Index, the U.S. Department of Labor’s measure of prices paid by consumers for a designated basket of goods and services.
Tuesday’s debate in the Senate, which lasted more than an hour, offered variations on themes offered in the House last week. Democrats argued that passing the bill would help low-income Maine families escape poverty and provide a tool to close a gender pay gap that has Maine women, on average, earning less than 80 cents for every $1 men in the state earn.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, who opened debate on the bill, also suggested that raising the minimum wage would benefit the entire state economy by “putting money in the pockets of Maine workers, who need it and will spend it” on necessities.
Most Democrats framed their arguments as advocacy for working people, single parents and other Mainers who value work but can’t keep up with their living expenses.
“It’s time we start talking about jobs that pay a livable wage,” Patrick said.
“We have a chance today to stand up for working people,” Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland said, arguing that raising the minimum wage would benefit Mainers up and down the pay scale. He urged senators to reject the notion that raising the minimum wage is bad for business and send a signal about the value that Maine places on hard work.
Republicans countered that raising the minimum wage would force small business owners to pass along costs to consumers and reduce hiring. Adding new business costs through a minimum wage increase also would force some Maine small businesses to close, Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, suggested.
“If we don’t have employers, there will be no employees,” said Thomas, adding that business owners would pay employees more if they could.
Republican senators also argued that raising the minimum wage would inhibit employers’ ability to reward higher-skilled employees and questioned whether raising the minimum wage would help struggling Maine families.
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, also cited uncertainty about the impact of implementing the Affordable Care Act in making a case against mandating higher labor costs for Maine employers.
“You can’t increase labor costs in the middle of a recession,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “There couldn’t be a worse time.”
Acknowledging the good intentions of the bill, Katz said the minimum wage debate should occur at the federal level and that by increasing the minimum wage now, Maine would send a bad signal to entrepreneurs if the “first major bill we pass actually makes us less competitive with neighboring states.”
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, faces additional votes in the Senate and House. To become law, it would require a signature from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, whose administration has opposed the measure.
Unless some Republican legislators change their votes, supporters would not have the two-thirds majorities in each chamber needed to override a gubernatorial veto.
Maine, where the minimum wage has been $7.50 an hour since 2009, is one of 19 states with a minimum wage above the national level of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In New England, only New Hampshire, which uses the federal minimum wage, has a lower minimum wage than Maine. Vermont’s minimum wage, $8.60 an hour, is the highest in the region and is indexed to inflation.