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Minimum wage may get booted from ballot

House bill 'substantially similar' to voter initiative

Posted: April 5, 2014 - 11:07pm

Alaska’s minimum wage workers may get a $2 raise over the next two years without having to take a vote. Just don’t expect backers of the August ballot initiative to be happy about it.

Lawmakers in Juneau proposed a bill Friday, HB384, that mimics the intent and much of the language found in the ballot imitative, and the similarity is no mistake.

Under state law, if the Legislature enacts a “substantially similar” piece of legislation to a ballot initiative poised for a vote of the general public, that initiative is removed from the ballot.

“It seems like something the citizens of Alaska would like to see done, and that’s our job to try to enact the wishes of the citizens of Alaska,” said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

It’s a sore subject for some who remember 2002 and 2003 when an initiative to increase the minimum wage was knocked off the 2002 ballot because the Legislature enacted “substantially similar” legislation that year as well.

Less than a year later, the same body voted to strip a critical component of the law — a provision that would have increased the minimum wage annually for inflation.

“We were expecting this, but that doesn’t mean we’re not disappointed,” said Ed Flanagan, the chair of Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage, which is the group behind the ballot initiative.

“It’s such a cynical attempt to thwart the will of the people,” he said.

During a hearing last Saturday, Flanagan and Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, urged members of the House and Senate judiciary committees to not consider a similar bill and let Alaskans vote on the issue.

“They’ll rip the inflation-proofing out first thing next year after ... voting for it this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage.

“I saw this play out 12 years ago, and I see the exact same thing happening again,” he added. “It’s hard not to feel some anger about it.”

Legislation amended by the Legislature — such as through HB384 — can be altered at any point after it’s passage. The ballot measure, however, would be untouchable for two years.

“I can’t speak for future legislatures, but I think if we do pass it, we need to leave it alone,” Chenault said, adding that he has “not talked to anyone about stripping any provision out of that bill.”

While not certain of the effect raising the minimum wage will have on Alaska’s economy, Chenault said introducing the bill was more about the people’s desire.

Flanagan isn’t convinced.

“We have similar-minded majorities right now more responsive to the employers of low-wage workers than to the workers and their needs,” he said. “We know exactly what is going to happen — we know the cost of living will be repealed, and this time there’s even an a possibility the second $1 increase ... would be in jeopardy.”

With about two weeks left in the regular session, there is no certainty about the bill’s fate.

Chenault said that if it gets to the floor, it will pass.

“Naturally, all of us like to see people make the most money they can,” Chenault said.

Meanwhile, French said lawmakers “aren’t going to fall for” the same trick pulled 12 years ago.

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