Wage increase survives tight vote in House

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AUGUSTA – An increase in the state-mandated minimum wage moved forward Monday in the House of Representatives after a protracted parliamentary predicament was finally unraveled.

Last week, Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, added an amendment to the minimum wage bill that halved the amount of the increase to 25 cents and delayed its implementation until 2007. When the House voted in favor of Mills’ change, the bill no longer matched the version passed in the Senate and the wage increase was on the verge of dying.

Before a bill can become law, the House and Senate must pass identical versions. Mills’ amendment forced the Senate to decide whether to pass the watered-down version of the bill or insist that the House change its mind. The Senate stuck to its version of the bill.

In the end and after much debate, the House relented and passed the Senate version of the bill by one vote, 72-71. The bill would raise the minimum wage from $6.50 to $6.75 in October and from $6.75 to $7 in October 2007. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour.

The bill has one more round of votes in both the House and the Senate, and its future is uncertain. During the last Senate vote, the two-step increase survived with a 19-16 vote. Eight members of the House were absent for Monday’s vote in the House.

It was a long, twisted road in the House, which required heavy parliamentary juggling on the part of Speaker John Richardson.

To reconsider Mills’ amendment, the entire bill had to be reopened for debate, which gave Rep. John Eder, G-Portland, an opportunity to offer two amendments to increase the minimum wage further and to add a provision to tie future, automatic increases to the consumer price index. It also gave opponents the opportunity to again make their case against the increase and to work the split among Democrats.

“The way to raise wages is to increase the demand for workers,” said Rep. Lawrence Jacobsen, R-Waterboro. “What we need to do is create jobs and create the demand for workers.”

Eder’s first amendment would have increased the minimum wage to $7.25 this year and $8 in 2007 while tying future increases to increases in the Consumer Price Index. The second amendment would have just added the CPI-tied increases.

“These are words that need to be said,” said Rep. Joanne Twomey, D-Biddeford, punctuating her words by pounding her desk. “When we stand up for the poor, we’re supposed to be satisfied with the crumbs and shut up. … We’re supposed to be satisfied with crumbs.”

Majority Leader Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, warned the House that to accept any of the amendments was to put the wage increase in a position to fail. The argument carried the day.

Both of Eder’s amendments were handily defeated, 107-34. The motion to restore the bill to the Senate version squeaked by, 72-71, killing Mills’ amendment.

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