AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill rolling back changes for tipped workers made by voters in 2016, signaling that reinstatement of the so-called “tip credit” is on track for passage in the Legislature.

It has been clear for months that some Democrats would bow to pressure from Republicans, restaurants and their workers to reinstate a lower minimum base wage for servers set to be phased out under the referendum, which will raise the regular hourly minimum to $12 by 2020.

The bill from Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would again allow restaurants to pay servers a base wage of half Maine’s current hourly minimum wage of $9 as long tips get them to the minimum threshold.

It passed the Senate in a 23-12 vote — with five Democrats voting with majority Republicans — and awaits further action in both chambers. It was one Senate vote shy of a two-thirds threshold in both chambers that would allow it to be enacted immediately, but that “emergency” status could be stripped later. Gov. Paul LePage supports reinstating the tip credit.

Most Democrats on the Legislature’s labor committee supported the bill after winning worker protections. They were heavily lobbied on the issue, with restaurant owners and servers packing an April public hearing that lasted 15 hours — longer than any recent committee session.

Testimony at that hearing was largely a battle of anecdotes. Most told lawmakers that a shift away from a customer subsidy would hurt owners’ bottom lines and was leading already to worse tips for wait staff, but advocates for the wage changes said they provided more predictable wages for servers.

Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who co-chairs the committee, read from the testimony of workers backing Katz’s bill on the Senate floor, urging colleagues to “listen to the hundreds of Maine voters who are begging us to not change the way that they’re paid.”

But Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, read testimony from someone in her district who said less reliance on tips gave servers stable wages across seasons and made them less susceptible to sexual harassment from patrons. Before overturning voters’ will, she said lawmakers should have “clear and overwhelming evidence” that the law would harm Mainers.

The rest of the minimum wage law, which was passed after a $2.8 million campaign backed by the Maine AFL-CIO and the Maine People’s Alliance, is likely to stand for the time being. But the tip credit has highlighted a divide among Democrats.

Eight Democratic sponsors of Katz’s bill faced heavy pressure from the Maine People’s Alliance in March, when the group posted an article with the lawmakers’ contact information and said repealing the tip credit would “betray the voters.”

Two of them, Sens. Jim Dill of Old Town and Bill Diamond of Windham, said on the floor that they received a high volume of calls. Diamond said some of the messages were “so bad that my wife and I had to make sure we got back to the house to delete them before our grandchildren would hear what was left.”

He said constituents who lobbied him simply wanted to “earn the money they can earn and are earning now so they can take care of their families.”

“To me, that’s not asking for much,” he said.

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...