AUGUSTA, Maine — A left-leaning advocacy group will again push Maine lawmakers for a minimum wage hike in 2015, organizers said Wednesday.
The Maine People’s Alliance announced Wednesday it would host a news conference to discuss a new report, “Equity in the Balance,” published by the Alliance for a Just Society that details the wages of Maine workers.
Andrew Francis, a communications associate with the alliance, said the call-in conference on the subject was a clear signal the group would be pushing the Legislature on the issue in the upcoming session, which officially starts in December.
The state’s minimum wage is $7.50 per hour, or 25 cents higher than the federal minimum wage.
The issue was a divisive one for many of the state’s legislative campaigns in 2014 with Democrats largely supportive of a wage hike, while Republicans voiced opposition.
Democrats argued a wage hike would help Maine’s lowest paid workers and pump more spending into the economy. Republicans countered that a hike would kill jobs at small businesses.
In 2013, legislative Democrats passed a bill that would have hiked the state’s minimum hourly wage to $9.50 incrementally over three years, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. Legislative Republicans voted to sustain the veto.
The Maine People’s Alliance’s event on Thursday is intended to focus on the low number of women and minorities who earn a “livable wage” in Maine.
On Wednesday, Francis described a livable wage for a single person as about $15.80 per hour, while a livable wage for two parents in a family of four would be $19.50 per hour.
LePage has said he would prefer the state focus on attracting new jobs that pay far beyond the minimum.
Republicans and Democrats also generally disagree over whether the minimum wage was intended to be a livable wage or whether it is meant to be more of an entry-level and training pay with the expectation that workers’ wages will advance as their skills and value to their employer increases.
The new push from the Maine People’s Alliance comes just after four states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — voted to increase the minimum wage. Illinois voters also approved an advisory vote that urges the Legislature to increase the minimum wage there.
Republicans would likely counter any proposal to hike the minimum with proposals that would make Maine a “right-to-work state” — or make it illegal to force workers represented by unions to pay the equivalent of dues for collective bargaining and other representation.
Democrats and the state’s large labor unions oppose the proposal, calling it little more than a union-busting measure. LePage also has been quick to note the states with biggest employment gains and wage increases have been “right-to-work” states.
Republicans also have pointed to data from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that suggested a federal increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour as proposed by President Barack Obama could cost the U.S. up to 500,000 jobs.
Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, said if legislative action is not forthcoming, his group and its allies could seek to go directly to voters with a statewide ballot measure on a minimum wage hike in 2016.
Tipping notes that Republicans hold legislative majorities in the four states where voters just approved increases. Three of the four states — Arkansas, South Dakota and Nebraska — are also considered right-to-work states.
“These are all red states, and it passed by wide margins,” Tipping said.
Tipping also said that even if the minimum wage was not intended to be a livable wage, it hasn’t managed to keep pace with basic inflation. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage in Maine would be $10.50 per hour, Tipping said.
“I think people recognize that Mainers work hard and deserve to be paid a wage that’s fair,” Tipping said. “The research undeniably shows that increasing the minimum wage is a pro-growth policy move. All the states that have raised it have done better.”
Also in the works is a Portland City Council vote that will contemplate setting a new minimum wage for the state’s largest city. An advisory committee has recommended the city increase the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2015 and to $10.68 by 2017.
In all, nine states will see minimum wages go up because of increases passed by voters or lawmakers or because of previously enacted laws indexing the minimum wage to inflation or cost of living, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Matt Gagnon, executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based nonprofit that advocates for conservative ideas and free market policies, said Thursday that his organization opposes a minimum wage hike for Maine.
“It obviously sounds great when you are making your case for it,” Gagnon said. “But the practical effects of it are obviously something we would not support.”
He said a scenario where Republicans compromise on the minimum wage, a high priority for Democrats and liberals, would involve a trade-off that included a high priority for conservatives, such as right-to-work legislation.