Watered-down minimum wage bill goes to Senate


Republican House members took advantage of a schism in Democratic ranks Wednesday to send a watered-down minimum wage bill to the Senate.

Instead of endorsing the two-step, 50-cent-per-hour raise that had been embraced by many Democrats, House members voted Wednesday to accept an amendment offered by Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, to halve the raise.

And anyone hoping for more money anytime soon should probably think again: Mills’ measure offers minimum wage workers only 25 cents more per hour, and then not until 2007.

“We sincerely hope that the Senate will strip the amendment and return it to us in the bill’s original form, but we will support an increase in the minimum wage nonetheless,” said House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings after the vote.

“Wages have no where near kept pace with inflation. Increasing the minimum wage sends more money directly back into the local economy and gives workers an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families,” Cummings added in a news release bemoaning the Mills amendment. “Workers are consumers too, and if they don’t earn enough to live on, then they don’t have enough to spend as consumers.”

However, Rep. Joan Bryant-Deschenes, a Turner Republican, said nearly no one works for minimum wage anymore, anyway.

“That’s a training wage,” she said.

She’ll pay the low wage to young people with no prior experience that she hires to work at her B&A Variety on Route 4 in Turner. But, “We only pay that for two or three weeks while they’re learning.”

“It’s a fallacy to think it will help the economy,” Bryant-Deschenes added.

Bob Berube, a Lisbon Republican, said he supported the amendment.

“I think it’s good,” he said, adding that Maine probably shouldn’t have a minimum wage anyway.

Similar to Bryant-Deschenes, Berube favors a training wage.

But he said he has spoken with enough people who find it hard to hire help for $9 an hour to realize that a $7 minimum isn’t going to make much difference in finding good workers.

“I’m not sure if there’s a need for it,” he said of the $7 proposal.

The House and Senate had passed a bill earlier this month that would have increased the minimum by 25 cents in 2006 and 25 cents in 2007, to bring the wage to $7 per hour.

Wednesday’s amended bill would scrap the first raise and delay any increase until 2007, according to Cummings. The hourly minimum wage then would be set at $6.75. It’s $6.50 now, the second lowest in New England.

A full-time minimum wage worker in Maine earns $13,500 annually. Cummings said the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a liberal-leaning think tank, estimates a person in Maine needs to make nearly $9.25 hourly in order to meet basic expenses. With two children, the wages needed to constitute a livable income rise to more than $18 an hour.

“Raising the minimum wage in Maine is a top priority for the House Democrats,” said Cummings. “Although we don’t feel that the amendment attached to the bill does nearly enough for the hard-working Mainers living on a minimum wage salary, in the end it will be at least a small step in the right direction.”

Mills didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Senators can choose to accept the bill as amended, strip the amendment and return it to the House in its original form, add a Senate amendment, or reject it outright.