AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House took a step toward raising the state’s minimum wage Wednesday, voting in favor of a bill that would increase the wage level to $9 an hour by 2016, then raise it annually in proportion with increases in the Consumer Price Index.
House members voted 86-58, largely along party lines, in favor of the bill, LD 611, which would raise the minimum wage annually in three 50-cent increments starting July 1, 2014. After rising to $9 an hour in 2016, the wage would then increase annually based on changes in the Consumer Price Index, the U.S. Department of Labor’s measure of prices paid by consumers for a designated basket of goods and services.
Legislators spoke about the measure for about an hour before taking a roll-call vote. All Democrats but one, Rep. Alan Casavant of Biddeford, supported the minimum wage hike while all Republicans opposed it. Maine’s minimum wage is currently $7.50 an hour.
The House vote came less than a week after the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voted along party lines to approve the minimum wage increase and refer it to the full Legislature.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, faces additional votes in the Senate and House. Senate Democrats plan to emphasize “rewarding work” themes when they advocate for the bill in that chamber, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday,
While the bill has a good chance of clearing the Legislature, where Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has opposed the measure.
Maine, where the minimum wage has been $7.50 an hour since 2009, is one of 19 states with a minimum wage above the national level of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In New England, only New Hampshire, which uses the federal minimum wage, has a lower minimum wage than Maine. Vermont’s minimum wage, $8.60 an hour, is the highest in the region and is indexed to inflation.
During debate on the House floor, Democrats said the state’s low-wage workers need a minimum wage hike so they could keep pace with increased costs of living and reverse a trend in recent decades in which inflation has diminished their buying power.
“As each year passes, minimum wage workers are falling further and further behind as their wages are not keeping up with the costs of gas, food and heating,” said Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay. “Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation will give these workers some help. These people won’t take another 50 cents and invest it in the stock market. They will probably put another quart of milk on the table.”
Republicans, meanwhile, said a higher minimum wage would make Maine a less attractive place for businesses and force companies to hire fewer workers, exacerbating unemployment in the state. They also argued that passing the bill would thwart upward mobility, interfere with the free market, create inflationary pressure and show disrespect for innkeepers, grocers, restaurateurs and other business owners who oppose the bill.
Democrats also suggested that state government has a moral obligation to increase the minimum wage as a way of helping low-income people survive.
“If you work full time, you should not live in poverty,” said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast. “Don’t we value Maine workers more than that?”
But Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, said the move would further cement Maine’s reputation as the worst state for doing business, a label Forbes magazine has given the state three years in a row. A hike in the minimum wage, he said, ends up costing business owners more, not only to pay the elevated wage, but also to pay increased workers’ compensation and Social Security costs.
“If you owned a company and were looking to come to Maine or New Hampshire, which one would you pick? I don’t think it would be Maine,” he said, noting New Hampshire’s minimum wage is $7.25 and the state has no income tax. “Are we going to have an economic future if no businesses come to Maine?”
Democrats replied that raising the minimum wage would strengthen the state’s economy in the end and not lead to employers shedding jobs.
“Putting money in people’s hands increases consumption. Increased consumption and demand for goods increases employment,” said Hamann, the bill sponsor. “This bill is a modest step in the right direction.”
Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who owns Ricker Hill Orchards, said his family business would likely slow its pace of hiring if the minimum wage rose. He said his business often employs high school-age interns at minimum wage.
“This is our chance to keep Maine viable in the country, somewhere within reason,” Timberlake said.
Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, said raising the minimum wage level could help his business, a 39-room Portland inn.
“When I invest in [my employees], they invest back in me,” he said. “I’m supporting this pending motion for them and for my small business.”
BDN writer Robert Long contributed to this report.