A new phrase entered my vocabulary this year: “ legislative tampering.” It refers to a state legislature acting to repeal or amend — that is, to tamper with — a ballot initiative approved by the voters. Many states impose limits on legislative tampering, but Maine is not one of them. In Maine, what the people have approved by referendum, the Legislature is free to take away at any time.
This is a real possibility this year, when several bills have been introduced to scale back or completely overturn a key portion of the minimum wage referendum — Question 4 on the November ballot — that Maine voters approved by a 10-point margin. It asked voters to approve an increase in the hourly minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 in 2017, after which it increases by $1 per year until it reaches $12 in 2020. The referendum also increased the hourly subminimum wage for tipped workers, raising it from $3.75 to $5 this year, after which it will increase a dollar per year until 2024 when tipped workers will receive the same minimum wage as all other workers.
Many restaurant owners are not happy about the increase in the subminimum wage, claiming it will lead to higher menu prices and depress business. And some waiters and waitresses appear apprehensive for the same reason. To no one’s surprise, the restaurant owners have conveyed their unhappiness to members of the Legislature and asked for legislative tampering. And Gov. Paul LePage also has made it clear he thinks the Legislature should restore the subminimum wage for tipped workers.
But if the argument is that a minimum wage increase must necessarily increase the cost of doing business for restaurant owners, why does this argument not apply equally to all employers in Maine? According to this line of reasoning, the raise in the minimum wage will increase the cost of goods and services in all sectors of the Maine economy and, potentially, lower business profits wherever workers receive the minimum wage. Economists differ on this point, but readers may reasonably ask why restaurant owners alone should be exempted from the new minimum wage law.
But these questions, as important as they are to tipped workers, are not my central concern, which is the propriety of legislative tampering. In my view, legislators should approach this instrument with humility. After all, it does by definition override the expressed will of the voters. In the case of the minimum wage referendum, the measure made it onto the ballot through statewide signature gathering after more than 75,000 signatures were presented to the Maine secretary of state’s office. Consider for a moment the effort and shoe leather that required. And Question 4 garnered more than 420,000 “yes” votes in November. This is the highest vote total of any successful citizen initiative in Maine history. Any legislator inclined to tamper with that good-faith effort and voter approval will have to ignore a statewide outpouring of support for those at the bottom of the wage scale.
What about the states where legislative tampering isn’t allowed or is limited? Maine is one of only 12 states that impose no restrictions. Where tampering is restricted, the most common approaches are to require a certain amount of time to pass before the referendum can be repealed or amended — typically two years — or impose a supermajority requirement on any bill seeking to repeal or amend. Maine should consider at least the second option. Fairness and a decent respect for the will of Maine voters requires nothing less.
But such a reform, if it ever comes to pass, will be too late to affect the current Legislature. So the question remains: Should Maine’s new minimum wage be repealed or amended? Only if, in practice, it proves to have been a bad idea — and we won’t know if it’s a bad idea unless we give it a chance to work. The voters have spoken, and the outcome was decisive. The Legislature’s duty is to listen, wait, and watch. If necessary, there will be time to tamper next year or the year after. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
John March lives in Mount Desert.