During this legislative session, I have seen what happens when a complicated piece of legislation is converted into a simple question on the ballot, circumventing the legislative process that includes a public hearing and vetting. I also saw how the people in Maine can make a difference when it comes to solving these problems in Augusta.
Hundreds of servers and others in the restaurant industry turned out in Augusta earlier this month to testify during a public hearing before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, urging legislators to support legislation — LD 673 and LD 702 — to reinstate the tip credit that was repealed under the minimum wage referendum on last November’s ballot.
Whatever you think of increasing the minimum wage, almost every single person I have spoken with didn’t know the minimum wage referendum would repeal the tip credit. Many people didn’t even know what the tip credit is. Under this system, workers who earn tips earn half the minimum hourly wage. If a worker doesn’t earn enough in tips to cover the difference between the tip credit and the minimum wage, her employer still has to cover the difference. Many workers can earn more than the minimum wage with their tips. It also allows restaurant owners to keep their labor costs down so they can stay in business. It’s the definition of a win-win.
But the referendum that passed last November eliminated the tip credit and raised the hourly wage for tipped workers to $5 per hour in January, after which it will rise $1 per year until it eventually hits $12. It would then rise based on inflation, basically putting the minimum wage on automatic pilot. This essentially would end the practice of tipping, and servers told the committee that they would see their pay fall if they made the new hourly minimum.
“There are some customers that believe we are already making $9 per hour and that we no longer need to be tipped. lf we were making only $9 per hour with no tips, that would nowhere near match our current wages,” Kelly Anstiss of Mapleton said.
It didn’t take long to see what would have happened had this legislation had a public hearing. Servers and restaurant owners turned out in droves to speak out against eliminating the tip credit. Jennifer Lewis from Clay Hill Farm Restaurant in Cape Neddick has been a server in Maine for 35 years, and I believe she summed up the overwhelming feeling of the majority of those who testified in front of the committee:
“I am here today to fight for the financial survival of not only my immediate family, but my extended work family as well,” she told the committee members. “The tip credit is widely misunderstood, and I believe Maine voters did not understand the full impact of Question 4. The dangerous public perception now — that servers are currently making minimum wage as base pay — has already begun to decrease the tipping percentages hard-working servers depend on.”
Some say the Legislature should not alter “the will of the voters.” Back in November, voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana, and in doing so, inadvertently made it perfectly legal for little kids to possess marijuana. I’m sure that wasn’t the will of the voters. The Legislature quickly moved to correct this. Had this bill had a public hearing, a work session and been properly vetted by legislators and a committee analyst, that would have been caught and fixed.
When laws are approved through the referendum process, what voters are approving are bills that have not been vetted. They have not had a public hearing nor legislative analysis. They have been boiled down to a question that can’t possibly encompass all that the bill seeks to accomplish.
In fact, over the past few decades, about 64 percent of ballot questions approved by voters since 1992 have been altered by the Legislature. But that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with legislation that has not been properly vetted.
My advice to everyone is to do your best to read and fully understand not only the referendum questions, but also the legislation behind those questions. The devil is always in the details. I for one will be voting with our restaurant industry to reinstate the tip credit.
Rep. Jeff Pierce represents House District 53, which includes Arrowsic, Dresden, Georgetown, Phippsburg, Woolwich and part of Richmond. He is the ranking House Republican on the Government Oversight Committee.