2015-05-15 / Front Page

Minimum wage increase?

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council has concluded that if the state won’t act to increase the minimum wage, it will — just as soon as it figures out what the state intends to do.

Since January, some 20 states have taken steps to increase their minimum wages above the $7.25 minimum set by the federal government. In Maine, the $7.50 minimum set in 2009 is up for revision in at least five bills currently making rounds at the state legislature.

On Monday, one of those bills, LD 92, sponsored by Rep. Dillon Bates (D – Westbrook), came out of the legislature’s Labor, Research and Economic Development Committee with a 7-3 “ought to pass” recommendation. As amended by the committee, the bill would raise Maine’s minimum wage to $8 per hour come October. The minimum would then increase 50 cents each year until 2018, when it would top out at $9.50 per hour.

A competing bill sponsored by South Portland Democrat Scott Hamann would set the minimum wage at $10.10 per hour and tie future increases to changes in the consumer price index.

Meanwhile, the Maine People’s Alliance is reportedly collecting signatures for a 2016 referendum to set Maine’s minimum wage at $12 per hour.

However, not content to wait on Augusta, a Portland City Council subcommittee on April 14 voted 3-0 to create the minimum wage within city limits. The recommendation, still to go before the full council, sets the minimum wage allowed in Portland at $8.50 per hour, a decrease, based on kickback from local business, from the initial proposal of $9.50 in 2015, $10.10 in 2016, and $10.68 in 2017.

The Bangor City Council also is considering a local minimum wage of $8.25. The proposal there would increase the minimum wage to $9 per hour in 2017 and $9.75 in 2018.

However, both municipal moves could be undone by the legislature. Gov. Paul LePage has submitted a bill, sponsored by state Sen. Andre Cushing (R – Hampden) that would prohibit municipalities from setting a local minimum wage, reserving that right to the state. A committee work session on that bill was held May 7 and a divided report is expected from the committee.

Locally, the drive to set a minimum wage in South Portland is being led by Councilor Brad Fox, who made it his first order of business upon winning election in November. Fox represents the city’s Brick Hill community, one of – if not the – poorest sections of the city.

“I think it’s really important that we consider raising the minimum wage,” Fox said Monday, in a council workshop session called to consider his proposal.

“It’s not something I wanted us to think about. In fact, if I had my druthers, I would prefer that the Greater Portland Council of Governments set a minimum wage for the area, so there would not be different standards in all the communities.”

The organization is currently working on a model ordinance for use by cities and towns interested in following Portland’s lead in banning plastic bags and Styrofoam containers, Fox noted, with a wave of a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, presumably obtained from somewhere other than Portland, immediately prior to the meeting. That model is designed to get all municipalities on the same page, so businesses don’t have to deal with different standards in different municipalities where they operate, leading Fox to suggest a similar regional approach is needed on the minimum wage.

“I think it’s very important to raise the minimum wage here,” he said. “We have so many people on assistance and everything I read tells us that if we raise the minimum wage, people won’t need government assistance. So it’s going to help taxpayers and, also, it’s going to stimulate the economy, because it will put money in people’s pockets. They’ll spend it, and it will stimulate business. Really, I think this is a pro-business thing.”

Although some councilors cautioned raising the minimum wage too fast, not one disagreed with Fox. In fact, all supported an increase to the minimum wage. The only question was logistical — what should the wage be, and should South Portland set a minimum within its bounds unilaterally, or work on through Greater Portland Council of Governments to set a regional rate.

“I definitely have concerns about going at this alone. I don’t like us going at this piecemeal,” Councilor Melissa Linscott said. “I’m definitely in favor of approaching this regionally. I don’t know the ultimate answer is here, but I do believe a change needs to be made.”

“The wage needs to go up,” Councilor Maxine Beecher agreed. “As to the amount, I don’t know.”

However, not everyone favored a cooperative effort.

“I’m concerned about the regional approach because that could take a very long time. The COG process is painfully slow,” Councilor Claude Morgan said.

Mayor Linda Cohen, who also leads the local Chamber of Commerce, cautioned that any increase in the minimum wage would likely force companies to increase pay for all workers, putting added pressure on prices.

But Councilor Tom Blake was dubious of a trickle-up effect.

“There’s really no reason to increase the price of a sandwich because you’ve raised the minimum wage to $8 from $7.50,” he said, adopting a populist approach. “It’s the people up at the top who have to give a little bit.”

Still, although Cohen said she, too, supports an increase in the minimum wage, her view fell more or less in line with LePage’s.

“I don’t know the answer is, I just don’t think it’s at the municipal level,” she said.

However, Blake countered that it’s up to municipalities to act, if only to drive action by higher authorities.

“This is another classic example of the federal government and the state government skirting their responsibilities and shifting their burden to us,” he said.

In the end, the council elected to take a wait-and-see approach. It will revisit the issue at a workshop session in September, by which time councilors will know what action, if any, the state Legislature has taken, and whether the governor’s proposed ban on local action has passed.

In the meantime, Blake said he would approach GPCOG about regional action, while City Manager Jim Gailey was directed to come back with relevant data, including how many workers in South Portland actually earn the minimum wage.

Also, in September, Fox promised to come back with a figure for what he felt the minimum wage should be in South Portland. Although he had raised the idea of setting one, and provided his peers on the council with minimum wages set in several states and foreign countries, he was not prepared Monday, even under prompting from Morgan, to cite an actual figure.

More research, he said, needs to be done on what it actually costs to live in South Portland, and that seemed to strike a chord with most on the council.

“We keep talking about a minimum wage,” Smith said, “but really, we ought to be calling it a living wage.”

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