Don’t fall for a minimum wage hike from those who thwarted past raises

Temptation — and politics — will test Democrats when they return to Augusta later this month to deal with a handful of leftover issues and anticipated vetoes by Gov. Paul LePage.

In a sly move, LePage and a number of allies in the business community and the Legislature have been working to thwart a citizen initiative that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020.

Supporters of raising Maine's minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020 announce their referendum campaign last year at the State House. BDN file.

Supporters of raising Maine’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020 announce their referendum campaign last year at the State House. BDN file.

That’s not really a surprise. The surprise comes in how they’re trying to create a roadblock for the initiative.

Raising the minimum wage is incredibly popular and is supported by Democratic, Republican and independent voters. They recognize that Maine workers need a raise.

The current statewide minimum wage of $7.50 an hour hasn’t been raised since 2009. Someone working full-time on the minimum wage earns only $15,300 a year — before payroll taxes.

That’s not enough to live on or enough to take care of a family.

And, it seems, that on the last point Maine has some new converts.

Legislation sponsored by LePage, with support from many of the large trade associations that represent restaurants, innkeepers and other industries, have offered a counter-proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2019, with the first raise coming in October — even before the $12 question goes to voters a month later.

Here’s where it gets tricky for Democrats. Republicans have blocked numerous attempts to raise the minimum wage. Supporters were forced to take matters into their own hands to force the state to act.

They gathered more than 90,000 signatures to place the minimum wage on the ballot, and early polling shows the measure earns broad support.

But there are no sure things in campaigns and elections.

Democrats — and other supporters of a living wage — are confronted with a choice: Agree to our proposal and low-wage workers are guaranteed a pay raise starting in just a few months.

The watered-down proposal leaves a lot of people behind, including tipped workers who could still be paid a sub-minimum wage. So far Democrats and left-leaning independents have stood their ground.

When the House returns later this month, this proposal, which passed the Republican-controlled Senate, will come back up.

A bird in the hand — and a ceasefire with powerful business groups — might look awfully tempting. It’s hard to argue against a sure thing.

And LePage’s allies have already tipped their hand about the type of political double speak they will use.

After action in the Maine Senate, the Retail Association of Maine tweeted, “12 Senate Democrats just voted against a guaranteed min wage increase. Instead choosing to roll the dice in Nov.”

But Democrats should stand firm.

The real purpose of this late entrant into the minimum wage debate isn’t about giving hard-working people the raise they deserve.

Instead, it’s clever ploy to place a competing measure on the ballot in November.

Why does that matter? It gives opponents the best chance they have of creating confusion and dividing voters who think that the minimum wage should be higher.

In ballot initiatives, the “yes” side generally has to make a compelling case for changing the law, while the “no” side only needs to create confusion or concern.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, a well-respected former secretary of state, put it this way when discussing the LePage-backed proposal: “Make no mistake: This bill is a competing measure. There is nothing more sacred to our state’s political process than the citizen initiative. It is our duty as lawmakers to respect their will, and not get in their way. It’s time to let the people speak without interference.”

The same strategy of placing a competing measure is playing out around the country. In Arizona, for example, the restaurant association also wants the legislature to place a competing measure on the ballot if wage supporters get enough signatures to place a question on the ballot.

Speaking to PoliticoPro, a Washington, D.C., news organization, Greg Dugal of the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association, discussed his dilemma.

“It’s hard to argue that $7.50 is good and it’s easy to argue that $15 is too much,” Dugal said. But “people are frustrated, and they’re trying to take it to the ballot.”

They’re frustrated, all right. They’re frustrated because time and again a raise in the minimum wage has been blocked.

This latest attempt, cloaked as a compromise, is more of the same. It’s an effort to stop an increase in the minimum wage.

Despite the political theater and the election year sleight of hand, the question of raising the wage to $12 belongs on the ballot — without a competing measure.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.