AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Democrats dealt a blow Thursday to business groups’ efforts to undercut a ballot question aimed at raising the state’s hourly minimum wage to $12 by 2020. But a Republican’s procedural move gave the opposition’s effort life — for now.

The House voted 78-69 — with only one Republican, Rep. Kevin Battle of South Portland, joining majority Democrats except one, Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford — against a motion to send the citizens’ initiative, backed by the Maine People’s Alliance and labor unions, to a legislative committee before going to Maine voters in November.

It faces action in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, the House’s Democratic majority has the votes to kill the competing minimum wage measure that business groups including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce have lobbied for.

“This is the right thing to do,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, which supports the citizens’ initiative, after the vote. “Maine voters have spoken, and the Legislature did the right thing by respecting the will of the voters.”

The progressive groups’ initiative would raise Maine’s hourly minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 in 2017, then by $1 annually until it reaches $12 in 2020, thereafter indexing it to inflation. It also would raise Maine’s tipped hourly minimum wage from $3.75 to $5 in 2017. Then, it will rise each year until it reaches the non-tipped minimum.

It qualified for the ballot in February. Now, the Legislature only has three options: Send it to voters, pass the bill itself or put a competing measure on the ballot alongside it.

The latter is what many Maine business groups want, rolling out a proposal in February to raise the minimum wage to $10 by 2020.

After the House vote, Rep. Susan Austin, R-Gray, cast a procedural vote in the Legislature’s labor committee that will allow a minimum wage bill carried over from last year to be the vehicle for that proposal. But it will have to win support from Democrats, and that’s unlikely.

Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who co-chairs that committee, called it “a heavy lift,” but she said that “it’s important to give the people of Maine a more modest choice for increasing the minimum wage.”

Democrats didn’t budge in floor debate on Thursday, with some noting that Republican legislators and groups backing the competing measure have stood against minimum wage increases in the past.

“We failed, so the people have acted,” said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, who co-chairs the labor committee. “Some in this room think they are smarter than the people of Maine. I do not.”

After the vote, Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, said “it’s clear” that legislators have heard from businesses that would be hurt by the increase and “I still don’t know why” Democrats don’t want to have a debate before a committee.

He hinted at political consequences for legislators who opposed the competing measure.

“Now we have a roll call, and so now we know who’s with us and who’s not with us,” Picard said. “And we know who restaurant owners and other business owners across the state need to contact.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...