AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is promoting a bill to thwart municipal officials in two of Maine’s largest communities from raising the minimum wage for employers within their city limits.
LePage’s bill — LD 1361, An Act to Promote Minimum Wage Consistency — faces preliminary action Tuesday in the Senate, where it will be introduced by Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden.
The ensuing debate will raise questions about who should control what the lowest wage earners in the state receive in their paychecks. Should it be state government or local officials?
A full-time Maine worker earning minimum wage makes $15,600 per year. Many advocates for low-income Mainers say that’s just not enough to get by.
At $7.50 per hour, or $3.75 per hour for tipped workers, Maine is one of 29 states with minimum wages higher than the federal level of $7.25. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a single, childless adult in Maine must earn roughly $9 per hour at a full-time job to make ends meet.
While lawmakers consider a slew of proposals to increase the minimum wage statewide and leading labor and progressive groups in the state push to get a voter-mandated increase on the ballot in 2016, several cities are exploring options to go it alone.
In Portland, Mayor Michael Brennan wants his city to enact a local minimum wage of $9.50. The City Council’s finance committee gave its blessing to a scaled-back version for a minimum of $8.75 per hour. Brennan said Monday he expects the full council to decide the matter in the next month or so.
He said Portland — in many ways the state’s economic engine — deserves the right to respond to its own unique economic circumstance, such as a cost of living that’s higher than in many other parts of the state.
“A state minimum wage (of $7.50) is not a wage that reflects the economy, or the market, in Portland,” he said. “The economy in different parts of the state is different. We, as a city, should be able to respond to the specific economic conditions in our community to help the economy go.”
In Bangor, Councilor Joseph Baldacci also wants a minimum wage increase. He’s promoting a plan to boost gradually the city’s minimum wage each year until it reaches $9.75 in 2018, after which it would be pegged to inflation. The city has yet to take up the question in any formal way, but Baldacci is determined to give the idea a full public vetting.
Baldacci said Monday that given the inaction at the federal and state levels to increase the minimum wage, Maine’s communities should be able to make the decision themselves. He said LePage’s maneuvering was an effort to subvert local control.
“It’s not been done by municipalities in the past, but the idea of local control is something that’s really enshrined in our heritage as a state,” he said.
If LePage’s plan is approved by the Legislature, Portland’s and Bangor’s nascent efforts would be dead on arrival.
Opponents of raising the minimum wage say the move could force employers to seek savings that would hurt employees or make companies pass on the increased cost to consumers, negating the benefits of increased wages.
“While small business understands the desire to help existing workers earn more, ordering employers to pay higher wages is not a risk-free economic miracle medicine,” David Clough, director of the Maine chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said in recent a written statement. “Like a prescription drug ad, raising the minimum wage should come with warnings that it may not help everyone and that some workers may experience mild to severe side-effects, from loss of hours to potentially loss of jobs.”
While no Maine municipality has passed an ordinance to require employers to pay more than the state minimum wage, such local efforts are not unheard of at the national level.
Washington, for example, has a statewide minimum wage of $9.47. But the city of Seattle has enacted a local ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for workers at companies with more than 500 employees and for all workers by 2021. San Francisco also has voted to enact a $15 minimum wage, and several other California cities have their own minimum wage ordinances in excess of the state level, as have Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Louisville, Kentucky.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.