A group hoping to raise Maine's minimum wage launched a bid Thursday to force a referendum and bypass the Legislature, where the fate of several minimum-wage measures opposed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage is uncertain.
Mainers for Fair Wages — which includes members of Maine AFL-CIO and the liberal advocacy group the Maine People's Alliance — will begin collecting the more than 60,000 signatures it needs to get the measure on the ballot in November 2016.
It wants to lift the minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour in 2017. It would then be raised by a dollar a year until it hits $12 in 2020 and be adjusted after that to the cost of living.
Supporters, who gathered Thursday at the Statehouse to deliver their application to the secretary of state's office, said they believe that will spur economic growth and help small businesses that already pay high wages compete with out-of-state companies.
"We're missing a huge opportunity," said Jim Wellehan, owner of Lamey-Wellehan shoes, whose lowest-paid employee makes $12 an hour. "We need to get the economy going. We need to help people do better."
A slew of minimum wage bills has been introduced in the Legislature this year but has run into fierce opposition from LePage's administration, business groups and GOP lawmakers, who hold the majority in the Senate. None of the bills have been voted out of committee yet.
LePage vetoed a minimum-wage increase in 2013, and his administration told lawmakers last month that the proposals wouldn't help solve the real causes of poverty, like a lack of skills needed to obtain a good-paying job. Republican lawmakers also contend that raising the wage will cause businesses' expenses to skyrocket and shift higher costs onto consumers.
"Dramatically increasing the minimum wage is not the answer to improving Maine's economy," Assistant Senate Republican Leader Andre Cushing said in a statement. "In fact, it will hurt the very people it's intended to help."
The proposal would also raise the wage for waiters and other tipped employees from $3.75 to $5 in 2017. It would gradually increase until it's on par with the base minimum wage.
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