Maine Democrats and Republicans split over bill to trim minimum wage increase

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AUGUSTA — A legislative committee divided along partisan lines Thursday over a Republican proposal that would scale back future minimum-wage increases in Maine while creating a lower wage for younger workers.

In November 2016, Maine voters approved a ballot initiative that increased the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 an hour, with additional $1-an-hour increases each year until the wage hits $12 in 2020. But some business owners have expressed concerns about the pace at which Maine is moving toward $12 an hour, saying the annual increases will drive up prices or even threaten their business’ viability.

On Thursday, the Legislature’s Labor, Research, Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 7-6 against a proposal that would limit the annual increases to 50 cents and postpone the next minimum wage hike until 2020. The proposal, which originally sought to reduce the current minimum from $10 to $9.50 an hour, also would establish a youth or training wage allowing employers to pay workers under age 18 at 80 percent of the minimum wage for the first 200 hours of employment.

All seven Democratic members voted to reject the proposal, while the committee’s six Republicans supported the amended bill. The bill will now go to the House and Senate as a “divided report,” meaning Republican lawmakers can still try to advance the proposal to alter the minimum wage law.

“These efforts to undermine the minimum wage increase will continue to fail because Mainers recognize that people deserve a wage they can live on, and while the cost of living has gone up year after year, for a lot of Maine people, paychecks have not,” Rep. Ryan Fecteau, a Biddeford Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said in a prepared statement. “I refuse to choose winners and losers. We can commit ourselves to ensuring small businesses can succeed without taking money from the paychecks of hard-working families.”

But bill sponsor Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, said paying $10 an hour is a challenge for many business owners, especially in rural Maine, and the rate of increase could cause some to go out of business. Stetkis also accused Democrats on the committee of “dismissing” the concerns raised by dozens of business owners from throughout Maine who testified or submitted written comments in support of his bill during a day-long public hearing last month.

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“Some people just dismissed it,” Stetkis said. “With the amendment, we’re not changing the $12-an-hour, we’re just slowing it down” to allow businesses to adjust.

The bill will likely spark lively debates in the House and Senate. Republicans hold a one-seat advantage in the Senate, and the House is comprised of 74 Democrats, 70 Republicans, six independents and one Green Independent lawmaker.

Maine State House is the state capitol of the State of Maine in Augusta, Maine, USA.

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