Minimum wage increase, on track for approval, caught up in legislative committee

Posted April 18, 2013, at 4:45 p.m.
Last modified April 19, 2013, at 6:39 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill to increase the minimum wage in Maine, which passed through the Maine House and Senate with largely party-line votes, might languish on the Special Appropriations Table for months before making it to Gov. Paul LePage.

The Appropriations Table is the destination for most bills that would affect the state budget, but the arrival of the minimum wage bill there has caught some legislators off guard. LD 611, “An Act to Adjust Maine’s Minimum Wage Annually Based on Cost-of-living Changes,” appeared headed toward final legislative approval after the Senate voted 19-16 in favor of the measure that would incrementally raise the state’s minimum wage to $9 by 2016, then link annual increases to inflation after that. But a week later, the Senate voted to place LD 611 on the Special Appropriations Table, where it will remain unless lawmakers can find a way to pay for it. The bill is not funded in Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget bill currently under consideration.

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said that it isn’t uncommon for a bill to be snared by a fiscal note so late in the legislative process, but that lawmakers have not yet decided how to deal with it. The options include leaving it on the Appropriations Table until the end of the session when the Legislature typically deals with bills with fiscal notes, voting to exempt it from the table and passing it on to LePage as is, or bringing it back to the Legislature for amendments that would erase the fiscal note.

“There are no conversations started that I’m aware of about what we’ll do,” said Cain.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, it has the potential to impact state spending because it could eventually mandate raises for some low-paid state employees.

“The impact of this potential future cost cannot be predicted at this time,” reads the note, which doesn’t include a dollar amount.

Marc Cyr, principal analyst for the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal Program and Review, said his analysis showed that though there are no state employees making the minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, there are some who could be affected as the wage goes up. State employees are currently working under a pay freeze, which would continue under LePage’s budget proposal.

“We just have to assume that state employees would receive no raises in the foreseeable future,” said Cyr. “It’s reasonable to think that within a couple of years this bill would have an impact on that. Obviously that all depends on what inflation is.”

What the Legislature decides to do with the bill may be a moot point. Though LePage has not publicly stated his intentions, he is widely expected to veto the bill. During an event with the Skowhegan Chamber of commerce on Tuesday, LePage wondered why he hadn’t been asked to act on it yet, according to Bangor Daily News liberal-leaning blogger Mike Tipping, who obtained an audio recording of the event.

“I don’t know why they’re not sending it to me, because they know what’s going to happen,” said LePage. “Let me tell you this. When you’re the fifth-worst place to do business and you turn around and insist on having the highest minimum wage in the country, what does that say? What kind of message are you sending to the potential investors?”

Maine is one of 19 states with a minimum wage above the national level of $7.25 an hour. Even if LD 611 were enacted, Maine would still lag behind a few other states such as Washington, where the minimum wage is $9.19 per hour and rising with the rate of inflation.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said Thursday that he hadn’t heard anything about the fiscal note being attached to the minimum wage bill but doing so would make it easier for legislators or LePage to reject the measure.

“It may never come off the Appropriations Table if [Democrats] can’t find a way to fund it,” said Thibodeau.

But Cain said she hopes for a different outcome.

“This bill should become law whether it’s now or two months from now,” she said.

If signed by LePage or left to become law without his signature, the bill would take effect 90 days following the end of the current legislative session, which would likely be sometime in September.

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