BANGOR, Maine — With the state in its fifth year without a minimum-wage increase, a member of the Bangor City Council is proposing a local raise for workers at the bottom of the pay scale to $8.25 per hour next year.
The proposal comes as city councils in Portland, South Portland and Augusta discuss similar measures to make local employers pay more than the statewide minimum of $7.50 per hour.
Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci released this week a draft ordinance that would hike the minimum wage in Bangor to $8.25 per hour effective Jan. 1, 2016. It would provide further increases to $9 per hour in 2017 and to $9.75 per hour in 2018.
Beginning in 2019, the minimum wage citywide would increase annually to reflect the prior year’s consumer price index, a measure of inflation.
Baldacci, brother to former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, said he is proposing the change because Maine’s lowest paid workers have gone nearly six years without a pay increase and because income levels for residents “have been stagnant for over a decade.”
Baldacci said he is tentatively seeking a public forum in March or April to discuss the issue. While the location is undetermined, he said he is planning for a large venue to maximize public access and input.
“It really needs to be a statewide if not a national conversation on raising the minimum wage,” he said. “I’m trying to move it up another level by putting forward elements of an actual ordinance.”
Baldacci’s proposal exempts employers from having to pay the increased minimum wage to workers who receive tips or gratuities as part of their earnings as well as unpaid interns working for academic credit.
It also would exempt small businesses with four or fewer employees. Baldacci described his proposal as a “modest and moderate” approach.
With Baldacci’s proposal, Bangor becomes at least the fourth Maine city to discuss openly the possibility of a local minimum wage in the wake of failed legislative attempts to adopt a statewide increase.
In 2013, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill that would have increased the state’s minimum wage to $9 per hour by the start of this year and provided for annual increases tied to inflation. That bill passed mostly with Democratic support.
Without legislative action, a Portland city council committee held a public hearing late last year to discuss raising the city’s minimum wage to $9.50 per hour beginning this year and to $10.68 per hour by 2017.
But Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said after the hearing that the proposal was not ready for council debate and may not get full city council consideration until later this month.
Meanwhile, South Portland Councilor Brad Fox joined the fray in December, requesting a workshop to discuss increasing the local minimum wage to $9.50 per hour no later than July 1 of this year.
And Augusta City Councilor Anna Blodgett, a former Democratic member of the State House, pitched a minimum-wage increase last month during an agenda-setting meeting.
“There seemed to be some support for it at the council, so I was very happy with that,” she said.
Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance — a left-leaning advocacy group that is pushing Maine lawmakers to increase the minimum wage — said municipal proposals are adding momentum to state and national movements for minimum-wage hikes.
“The reason a lot of cities and towns are looking at this is because of the economic boost it provides,” Tipping said.
“People who get a higher, more fair wage, they’re going to spend that money in town,” he said. “They’re going to buy goods and services from local businesses. They’re going to improve the economy overall.”
If the minimum wage kept pace with rising worker productivity over the past decade, it would be about $22 per hour, he said. Had it kept pace with the rising incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans, it would be more than $30 per hour, according to Tipping.
The living wage needed for a single Mainer with no children to pay for necessities including food, health care, transportation and housing is about $15 per hour, he said.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator estimates $8.69 per hour is required to make ends meet in Bangor — $3.48 above the local poverty wage.
Tipping said the MPA will continue pushing for a statewide minimum-wage increase this legislative session. If that fails, he said, the group will consider a ballot campaign for a citizen initiated referendum in 2016.
“People in Maine work very hard, and they deserve a fair wage,” he said.
Proposals to increase the minimum wage in the past have been met with resistance from some conservatives and business groups.
John Porter, president and CEO of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said its board discussed the issue of a statewide increase when that proposal was moving through the Legislature in 2013.
“There were actually voices on both sides of the question, and a lot of those voices were people who owned small businesses that had sympathy for the increase in the wage,” he said.
What business owners had a problem with, Porter said, was increasing the minimum wage on a state level instead of a national level. That could put the state at a competitive disadvantage for some jobs, he said, as well as make it appear less business friendly overall.
Porter said he suspects those concerns would be the same for a municipal minimum wage and that the potential for jobs to move from one municipality to another may be greater than the potential for jobs to leave Maine over a statewide minimum wage.
“The bigger issue is the message that gets sent and the sense that businesses will look at the higher minimum wage in a town and they’ll say, ‘Well, if they did that, what else might they do that would be unfriendly to business?’” he said.
While the Bangor City Council has not yet discussed Baldacci’s proposal, there are signs it could lead to negotiating among council members regarding labor issues overall.
Asked about the proposal, Councilor Pauline Civiello said she would be more open to considering it if it were paired with a measure to make Bangor a right-to-work city.
“If we’re going to have a discussion, why not make it broad and cover a few other things and have Bangor do that?” Civiello said.
Right-to-work laws prevent workers from being compelled to join a union or pay union dues in order to work for a company.
Civiello also objected to a minimum wage increase that exempts certain kinds of workers and businesses.
Baldacci said the increase would have a significant impact, noting Bangor has 6 percent of the state’s labor force with about 35,000 workers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the roughly 378,000 Maine workers who earn an hourly rate, about 3,000 earned the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in 2012 and another 8,000 earned less than that.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.