There are two kinds of people claiming to support a higher minimum wage in Maine:
1. Those who genuinely believe raising the minimum from $7.50 per hour to $12 in several steps by voting for a referendum on the November ballot will improve the lives of folks who are struggling to make ends meet, and …
To help distinguish between the two, a little history might prove useful. But first, let’s take note of a comment Peter Gore, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of government relations, made to the Bangor Daily News earlier this month.
“I don’t think anyone has argued that the minimum wage shouldn’t go up,” Gore said.
That’s true – except for Gore, business groups, Republicans and an unlikely ally (who’ll be unmasked in a few paragraphs) – all of whom have long records of opposing even modest increases.
For instance, in 1988, they claimed adding a dime an hour to the base wage of $3.75 would wreck the state’s economy. The Democratic Legislature did so anyway. The economy hardly noticed.
The GOP probably could have avoided this year’s referendum if they’d accepted a Dem plan in 1990 to index the minimum to inflation, making raises automatic. But Republicans foiled the effort by claiming it would “cause small-business owners to drown in a tide of rising labor costs.” The next year, the feds jacked the rate to $4.25 per hour. Nobody required mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
In 1995, Gore said a bill to boost the minimum to five bucks would “place Maine at a disadvantage.” Then, a more influential politician killed the measure by claiming it sent the “wrong signal.” That person was independent Gov. Angus King, now our junior U.S. senator, who’d go on to veto wage increases in 1998, 1999 and 2000, arguing they’d have “an adverse impact on all workers by discouraging the creation of new jobs in our state.”
During this period, Gore was far from silent, telling a legislative committee, “[I]t’s the small business guy who would get hurt in this” and “We oppose unilaterally increasing the minimum wage because Maine is in competition globally for jobs and opportunity.”
Even though the wage didn’t go up, those jobs and opportunities never arrived. Could it be there’s not much correlation between base pay and economic development?
By 2001, Maine was tied with New Hampshire for New England’s lowest minimum, at which point both King and Gore had an epiphany: Maybe a modest increase wouldn’t be that drastic a change, after all. A measure to raise the wage in two steps to $6.25 passed easily and was signed into law.
In 2004, another increase was approved, this time to $6.50, over Gore’s half-hearted opposition: “Our economy just doesn’t warrant that.” In 2006, he actually admitted a two-step boost to seven bucks an hour wasn’t a big deal to the chamber’s members. In 2007, a bill to establish a $7.70 minimum did become a big deal for the chamber, with Gore’s boss, president Dana Connors, telling legislators, “It’s too much, too soon and it goes too far” (the same argument Gore is using against this November’s referendum). The Legislature eventually approved a gradual increase to $7.50, where the state minimum has languished ever since.
Bills calling for further hikes were introduced in 2009, 2011 and 2013, the last of which passed, only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. But by 2015, both Portland and Bangor had approved higher local minimums, and the Maine People’s Alliance was on the verge of collecting enough signatures to force that aforementioned statewide vote. Too late, Gore and the Republicans noticed the writing on the walls consisted mostly of polls showing overwhelming popular support for a higher minimum. In a desperate attempt to head off the referendum increasing the wage to $12 by 2020, after which it would be indexed to inflation, Gore offered “a more reasonable alternative,” a gradual rise to $10 with no indexing.
That idea went nowhere in the Legislature, but does allow Gore to claim he favors an increase, even if it’s one he’s opposed in the past and is employing now in a feeble attempt to divide wage-hike supporters.
If that’s not lying, it’s pretty damn close.
- Published in Politics & Other Mistakes