JUNEAU — House Speaker Mike Chenault on Thursday said legislative passage of a bill to raise Alaska’s minimum wage would guarantee that wages go up, while the outcome of a similar ballot initiative would be dependent on the whim of votes.
Chenault, R-Nikiski, said most lawmakers he’s spoken with support having the Legislature address the issue. He said the minimum wage was once aimed at helping young people in entry-level positions. But “it seems like that’s expanded into people trying to make a living and trying to raise a family off of those minimum wages,” he told a news conference. “And I just think that we need to improve those and bring that standard up a little bit more.”
The bill introduced last week, HB384, could be voted on by the House as early as Friday.
The timing of the bill late in session has raised concerns about the Legislature’s intent. An initiative can be pre-empted if the Legislature passes substantially similar legislation. That happened in 2002, and a year later, lawmakers gutted the law, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of union leaders and initiative supporters.
Chenault was among the lawmakers who voted to both raise the minimum wage in 2002 and then strip the major new provisions of the law a year later, according to legislative records.
If the bill were to pass, Chenault said he had no intention of revisiting the minimum wage issue for at least two years. Initiatives passed by voters cannot be repealed by lawmakers within two years of their effective dates.
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, told reporters earlier this week he thought lawmakers’ motives had been “tainted” by past actions. He said he thought there was probably reluctance among senators to move forward on a bill.
Both the House bill and the initiative would raise the current minimum wage of $7.75 an hour by $2 an hour over two years and adjust it for inflation after that.
The Alaska District Council of Laborers, in written comments to the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which advanced the bill Wednesday, said the organization “would view any legislative attempt to subvert a vote on the pending initiative before Alaskans as an anti-worker action.”
House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, who works as a union business representative, said he believes it is best that Alaskans get to vote on the issue.
Gov. Sean Parnell said the concerns that have been raised are valid but noted that lawmakers are allowed to take action to overturn voter initiatives after two years.
“It’s really becoming more about the politics than about the substance,” he said. “If we think the minimum wage is a good piece of legislation, then we ought to pass it and pass it on to the people and not worry about whether it’s on the ballot or in a legislative session. If the substance is good, it ought to pass.”
The 2002 measure said the minimum wage should be either the most recent wage adjusted for inflation or $1 more than the federal minimum wage, whichever was greater. But a year after passing the bill, lawmakers stripped the inflation adjustment requirement and reference to the minimum wage being $1 higher than the federal level.
The Legislature in 2009 passed a measure stating that, beginning in 2010, the minimum wage had to be at least 50 cents more than the federal minimum wage.