Democrats and Republicans in the State House should work toward a compromise on the minimum wage, and the compromise should include student and training wages.
As it stands now, voters will decide in November whether to approve a measure – the result of a citizen petition with support from the progressive Maine People’s Alliance – to increase the minimum wage to $9 in 2017, $10 in 2018, $11 in 2019, and $12 in 2020, then tie it to inflation.
Business groups and Republicans want the Maine Legislature to give voters the option of a more modest set of increases: to $8.50 in 2017, $9 in 2018, $9.50 in 2019, and $10 in 2020, without automatic increases thereafter.
The Legislature has the option to enact the petition itself without any changes, send it to voters, or send it to voters with a second option on the ballot, such as the GOP proposal.
In the latter case, voters would also have three options: back the citizen’s petition, back the so-called “competing measure,” or reject both.
If the Legislature places a competing measure on the ballot and neither the citizen petition nor the competing measure receives a majority of the votes, the one that receives more votes – if at least one-third of the total votes cast – would go to the next statewide election for an up-or-down vote.
Democrats are blocking a competing measure. Because Republicans have blocked past efforts by Democrats to increase the minimum wage, Democrats say they’re not interested in their newfound willingness to negotiate.
To be fair to Democrats, Republicans have had ample opportunity to give minimum-wage workers their first raise in more than seven years and avoid what now seems like an inevitable petition drive.
On the other hand, the new proposal by business groups and Republicans beats our Democratic president’s proposal in the 2013 State of the Union address to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 and falls just 10 cents short of his later proposal for $10.10.
These days, the president is supporting a bill similar to the Maine citizen petition. Still, to see conservatives embrace $10 – an increase of one-third in the minimum wage – seems like a good deal of progress in the current political climate.
If Democrats decline to consider the proposal, the citizen petition seems likely to gain a powerful opponent.
The idea of a hike in the minimum wage is a popular one, with one statewide survey showing 68 percent support, but a few months of ads promising mass layoffs and economic devastation could close the gap pretty quickly, and the business groups behind the $10 proposal have the wherewithal to conduct just such a campaign.
If Democrats won’t agree to offer $10 as an alternative to a more dramatic boost, they should at least consider a second alternative, such as the same gradual increase to $12, but with a $9 or $10 student and training wage.
Backers of a hike in the minimum wage want to make it a living wage, but the average high school student who lives with his or her parents doesn’t need to make a living wage. Many teenagers also need time to develop a work ethic and learn skills.
Similarly, employers should be able to hire adults without training in a particular field and pay a training wage until the employee learns the job.
Many jobs require more than a few minutes – or months – of on-the-job training. The state could cap the training period at a year to prevent abuse.
Democrats and Republicans should sit down and try to work out a compromise on this issue. To fail to do so is to fail their constituents – both workers and business owners.