Portland minimum wage law faces LePage challenge, heads to council

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PORTLAND — City councilors are expected to soon consider a citywide minimum wage ordinance.

But the state Legislature may blunt any municipal effort to set local wages.

On April 16, the City Council Finance Committee unanimously forwarded a minimum wage ordinance that could boost the citywide minimum wage to $8.75 per hour from the current state-mandated $7.50.

On Tuesday, a bill introduced by state Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Penobscot, which would prohibit municipalities from setting local minimum wages, was expected to be assigned to a the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Cushing, the assistant Senate majority leader, submitted the bill on behalf of Gov. Paul LePage. Still in minimal draft form, it has not yet been scheduled for any hearings.

If enacted, the proposed legislation would also affect a citizens initiative launched by the Portland Green Independent Party that seeks to create a city “livable” wage of $15 per hour by 2019.

“Gov. LePage is trying to block Portland voters from exercising their democratic rights under the Maine Constitution,” Portland Greens Chairman Tom MacMilland said Monday in a press release.

The city minimum wage ordinance comes more than a year after Mayor Michael Brennan convened a minimum wage committee, but doesn’t resemble what Brennan had in mind, or what was deliberated during a four-hour committee meeting and hearing.

Amendments introduced by Councilor Jill Duson reduced the initial wage increase to $8.75 per hour from Brennan’s proposed $9.50, sets wage increases every two years instead of annually, and would result a possible citywide minimum wage of $9.75 by 2020.

“We have to ensure we are leading, but leading in a balanced way,” Councilor and committee Chairman Nick Mavodones Jr. said.

Brennan proposed an increase to $9.50 effective Jan. 1, 2016, and then to $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2017 and $10.68 on Jan. 1, 2018, with future increases tied to the Consumer Price Index.

“We did spend a considerable amount of time working metrics we thought would work,” Brennan said, adding he had hoped for a wage between 50 and 60 percent of the city median wage estimated at $17.30 per hour.

Brennan had initially hoped a new minimum wage, which would include municipal workers, would go into effect July 1. Because of the delay, he suggested the wage be increased to $10.10 an hour instead of $9.50 on Jan. 1, 2016.

Following the meeting, Brennan said he was glad to see the ordinance moving forward, and declined comment on whether he might offer his own amendments when the ordinance comes to the full City Council.

Dates for a first reading, public hearing and City Council vote have not been set. If enacted by the City Council, the new increase above the state minimum wage of $7.50 would go into effect Jan. 1, 2016.

As the ordinance moves forward to the full City Council, the signature drive for the citizens initiative has gone well, MacMillan said.

“We are very pleased and surprised at level of support so far,” he said April 16.

MacMillan said he expects the drive to continue into June. About a third of the required 1,500 signatures necessary to put the question on a Nov. 3 referendum ballot are already in hand.

The goal is to get 3,000 signatures, and MacMillan said after the meeting he thinks the “watered-down” minimum wage ordinance will help the Green’s cause.

After about 85 minutes of public comment detailing the high cost of living for Portland workers and the low profit margins for small city businesses, the  committee discussions centered on the wage amount, the need for a possible training wage for people younger than 18, and where to set the minimum “tipped wage” paid to workers who earn at least $30 a month in tips.

The committee agreed the tipped wage should remain at 50 percent of the state minimum, currently $3.75, instead of an increase to match 50 percent of what the city minimum wages will be.

Brennan first brought a committee of business leaders, activists and academics together in March 2014, and the Finance Committee held its first hearing on the ordinance in December 2014.

Mavodones said the pace of getting the ordinance to the full City Council had been dictated by other committee work.

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

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.