Alaska House moves closer to killing minimum wage initiative

The Alaska House Labor and Commerce Committee has advanced a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage, but backers of a minimum wage ballot initiative say the bill is only a cynical political ploy.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, previously told the Empire that the bill will pass the House. Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, said there is “reluctance” in the Senate.

The House Labor and Commerce Committee moved HB384 out of committee on a 6-1 vote Wednesday with Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage voting against the bill.

Both HB384 and the minimum wage initiative increase Alaska’s minimum wage from $7.75 per hour to $8.75 per hour on Jan. 1, 2015. The wage rises to $9.75 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016, and starting Jan. 1, 2017 is adjusted annually for inflation.

According to the Alaska constitution, if a law “substantially the same” to a ballot measure is approved by the Legislature, the initiative will be removed from voters’ hands.

“This legislation is an opportunity to ensure the minimum wage is inflation-proofed,” Tom Wright, Chenault’s chief of staff, said. He later added, “A ballot proposition does not guarantee voters will pass (an increased minimum wage).”

Labor unions and other supporters of raising the minimum wage have said several times that they do not support the Legislature’s effort.

Their objections are based in history. In October 2001, Alaskans successfully petitioned to put a minimum wage petition on the 2002 ballot. The measure called for Alaska’s minimum wage to rise to $7.15 per hour and be tied to inflation. Before the measure could come to a vote, lawmakers passed a substantially similar bill.

Laws enacted by the initiative effort cannot be modified for at least two years, but laws changed by the Legislature can be changed at any point. In 2003, one year after passing the minimum wage bill, legislators went back and stripped the inflation-proofing from the law.

“It would not be my intention (to alter the bill in the next two years), and I would vote against any changes to current bill,” Chenault said in response to questions about the history.

“Alaskans worked very hard to get the minimum wage initiative on the ballot,” said Nancy Courtney, a lifelong Juneau resident who spent hours collecting signatures for the effort. “We have the right to vote on it, and — when it passes — we have the right to have it in place two years.”

Opposition to the bill by initiative backers has made several state Senators think twice about voting for the bill if it clears the House, Coghill told reporters Tuesday.

“It was expressed very loud and clear that they wanted it on the ballot … that has given the Senate some pause,” Coghill said, adding that support had been growing for a minimum wage bill before supporters urged the Legislature to leave it up to the voters.

“Our motives have been tainted,” Coghill said.

He added that he is opposed to the idea of a bill, and he will not vote for it on the ballot or on the Senate floor.

“It’s not for any political reason,” Coghill said of his opposition. “Creating public policy just to have a political strategy only — it really should be on the merits of the issue.”

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, said the issue is one that should be vetted and decided through the legislative process, not through a public advertising campaign surrounding a ballot question.

“It’s wise for us to take up minimum wage this session rather than having a ballot fight where things may not be as truthful as they should be,” Millett said.

Millett and others said the minimum wage is not intended to be a “living wage” for a family, but rather a transitional wage while a worker gains experience and training to get a better job.

“I made $3.91 at my first job, and I thought, ‘To hell with this — I’m going to get an education and get a better job,’” Millett said.

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