Greens ready to launch liveable wage drive in Portland

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PORTLAND — A petition to create a minimum wage of $15 per hour in the city by 2019 should be ready for signatures by April 3, Portland Green Independent Committee Chairman Tom MacMillan said March 12.

The proposed ordinance would require companies employing 500 or more people to start paying the wage July 1, 2016, and would be in full effect for city businesses by 2019, he said.

If passed, the ordinance would supersede a minimum wage ordinance now under consideration by the City Council Finance Committee. That ordinance would boost the minimum wage paid in the city from the state-mandated one, $7.50 per hour, to $9.50 by Jan. 1, 2016, to $10.10 in 2017, and then to $10.68 in 2018.

“I had hoped (Mayor Michael Brennan) would push for something working families could really benefit from,” MacMillan said. “The mayor was clear he was not supporting a living wage ordinance, he just wanted to recalculate the minimum wage to a number he was comfortable with.”

The city and Green Independent ordinances would use the Consumer Price Index for urban areas to determine increases in wages in 2019 and beyond.

MacMillan said the Greens’ goal is to obtain double the required 1,500 signatures of registered city voters, and then have the proposed ordinance on the ballot for the Nov. 3 election.

“It’s not a huge threshold, but harder than you’d think,” he said.

The petition drive for what would become a “citizens’ initiative” is expected to begin at the April First Friday Art Walk along Congress Street. The ordinance will be patterned after one passed in Seattle in 2014, but MacMillan said it will also draw from the city’s proposal.

Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr., chairman of the Finance Committee, on March 12 said he hopes the committee can hold a second public hearing within the next four weeks and then move the minimum wage ordinance forward. He asked committee members to look at their schedules in case a hearing needs to be scheduled on a night other than Thursday, when the committee usually meets.

“We had planned on doing it in one meeting,” Mavodones told Brennan after a March 12 Finance Committee meeting, where the wage hearing was postponed in order to discuss proposed state changes to the General Assistance program.

The Green Independent ordinance would also raise the base hourly wage for tipped employees from $3.75 to $11.25. State law allows employers to pay staff making at least $30 a month in tips a base wage of 50 percent of the minimum wage, provided any shortfall in tips is made up.

Brennan said he wants the city minimum wage ordinance to keep the tipped credit at 50 percent of the state minimum wage, while requiring employers to make up any shortfall based on a city minimum wage.

If passed, the Green Independent ordinance could not be amended for five years, and would not include wages paid to municipal employees, under terms of the city Charter. Municipal employees would be covered in the city’s minimum wage proposal.

Once a petition is taken out at the City Clerk’s office, organizers have 80 days to get at least 1,500 signatures. After those signatures are certified, the City Council must hold a public hearing on the citizens’ initiative within 30 days.

MacMillan was a member of the committee convened by Brennan a year ago to discuss implementing a city-wide minimum wage. Brennan gathered a group including University of Southern Maine Economics Professor Charles Colgan, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Chris Hall, and  Maine Women’s Lobby Executive Director Eliza Townsend.

Brennan initially hoped the new ordinance could be enacted by Jan. 1. The date was later shifted to July 1, but during a Finance Committee meeting on Jan. 22, Brennan conceded that a minimum wage increase would not be enacted before Jan. 1, 2016.

MacMillan praised Brennan for bring up the wage discussion, but said he did not think it fully addressed the rising cost of living in the city.

“I did my best on the committee to push for more reform and something that was more liveable,” MacMillan said, adding he fears increased rents and gentrification efforts will lead to “a hollowing out of downtown Portland.”

Brennan said he pegged his minimum wage ordinance to 50 percent to 60 percent of the area median income, which may be as much as $17 per hour.

“There are no metrics on tying $15 to a living wage in Portland,” he said.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but many cities and towns have been enacting their own wage laws over the last several years. Minimum wages in San Francisco were increased to $12.25 on March 1 and will reach $15 on July 1, 2018.

In Washington, D.C., the minimum wage will increase to $11.50 by 2016, with a tipped wage of $2.77 per hour. In New York City, the minimum wage could increase to $13.13 per hour, should the New York State Legislature pass a bill allowing that city to act independently.

MacMillan said he expects opponents of the citizens’ initiative will spend heavily to defeat it.

“We understand every lobbyist is licking their lips over fighting it, because they know there is a payday for them,”he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.