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Maine Minimum Wage Bill Debate Divides Along Party Lines
03/27/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine's current minimum wage now stands at $7.50 an hour. It would rise to $9 an hour over the next three years under a bill being debated in Augusta. As A.J. Higgins reports, the debate is clearly divided along partisan lines.

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Maine Minimum Wage Bill Debate Divides Along Party Listen

Seven-dollars-and-fifty-cents an hour just isn't enought to live on, says House Majority Leader Seth Berry. "Fifteen-thousand-six-hundred a year for a full-time job is not enough to support a family," Berry said.

The Bowdoinham Democrat is backing a bill that would phase in increases beginning next July to bring the state's minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016. After that, increases would pivot on changes in the federal Consumer Price Index, also known as the cost-of-living index.

The bill won preliminary approval in a vote that fell almost exactly along party lines, 86-58. Berry questions why Republicans would deny a small wage increase to Maine's lowest paid workers.

"Maine's minimum wage families have not seen a raise for four years, and if the price of bread and milk go up, then wages should follow," Berry said.

Taxest and wages are two areas where Democrats distinguish themselves from Republicans in the current session. Only two years ago, Republicans held the majority in the Legislature and were able to enact more than $400 million in tax cuts. But Democrats later complained that many of the cuts benefitted the state's wealthier residents, including a measure that doubled the estate tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million.

Rep. Erin Herbig, a Belfast Democrat, says Maine's lowest-paid workers deserve as much consideration. "In Maine we should not just reward wealth - we should reward wealth and work," Herbig said. "If you work full-time, you shouldn't live in poverty, and too many families are being asked to do this right now in Maine."

But state Rep. Amy Volk, a Scarborough Republican, says most minimum wage earners are teenagers, and that only about 4 percent of those earning minimum wage are single parents working full-time.

"Higher minimum wages do not address the main reason that most poor families live below the poverty line," Volk said. "Contrary to what many assume, low wages are not their primary problem, because most poor Americans do not work for minimum wage. The problem is that most poor Americans do not work at all."

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, of Newport, says wages are best determined by the marketplace, and he took issue with those who would imply that Republicans are insensitive to the needs of the poor. Fredette said he grew up poor and worked his way through high school earning wages that his employer thought he deserved.

"I care, and as Republicans, we care about the poor, we care about minimum wage, but we also have to focus on growth in this state and how best to move Maine forward so that we continue to allow employers to give employees opportunities to work," Fredette said.

The party-line vote in the House came after several hours of debate. The bill now moves to the Senate, where Republican Sen. Andre Cushing says he hopes to convince Democrats to oppose the measure. "We will be the second-highest minimum wage in the country at the end of this - only behind Vermont," Cushing says.

But Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond says Republicans would do well to stand behind Maine workers. "I would think that when we get sent from our districts, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or independent, you'd be for the working class workers of the state of Maine," Alfond said.

The bill faces additional votes in the House and Senate. It is opposed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.


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