One of the most hotly contested bills of the 2014 Legislature — the effort to raise the minimum wage — got even hotter after it passed the House on Sunday.
The measure approved by the House was changed on the floor to raise the wage to $9 an hour in 2015 and to $10 an hour in 2016 — those numbers had been $8.75 and $9.75, respectively. It would be adjusted annually for inflation each year after that.
Shortly after the 21-19 nod of approval — the closest margin possible for passage — House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, distributed a photograph of a prominent opponent of house bill 384 flashing a “$” sign during a committee hearing on the bill.
“I see a man representing organized labor, sitting in a committee room, flashing a dollar sign to elected members of this body as they deliberated the minimum wage bill,” Chenault said on the House floor.
“He damn well ought to know better,” he continued.
The subject of the photograph is Ed Flanagan, the chair of Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage and a former commissioner of the state Department of Labor. Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage is the group behind the initiative effort to raise the state minimum wage via a fall ballot vote.
The initiative backers are opposing the Legislature’s bill — which now calls for a greater wage increase than the initiative — because something that happened 12 years ago.
Under state law, if the Legislature enacts a “substantially similar” piece of legislation to a ballot initiative, that initiative is removed from the ballot.
That happened in 2002 with the same issue. In 2003, lawmakers voted to strip key components of the minimum wage bill they passed the year before.
Supporters of the initiative and some Democrats in the statehouse believe history is repeating itself as Republicans attempt to keep the minimum wage issue off the ballot.
After Chenault’s comments on the floor, Flanagan told reporters in the hallway that the “spin” of what he was trying to do was a “smokescreen.” He said his intention was to remind Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, to ask about a fiscal note on the bill.
“It never occurred to me the interpretation the Speaker chooses to put on it — that was not my intent,” Flanagan said. He added that he told Chenault shortly after the meeting that the photo was misleading.
That didn’t go very far with the House’s most powerful member.
“Folks can say what they want,” Chenault told reporters during a press conference following the vote.
After speaking with reporters, Chenault told the Empire that multiple members of the Republican caucus had received financial threats from organized labor over how they planned to vote on the bill.
If the Legislature extends beyond the scheduled adjournment of April 21 — a highly likely scenario according to Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage — the initiatives approved for the ballot this fall will be pushed to the November election. The SB21 repeal question will be on the August ballot regardless.
The fight over the minimum wage bill now moves to the Senate where majority leader Sen. John Coghill has already said legislators’ motives have been tainted by history.
The House’s version of the bill includes a section indicating there is no intention of changing any aspect of the bill within the next two years.
“Regardless of what position I am in, I will do all that I can to stop any changes into the current bill that we passed,” Chenault said, adding, “I will not support to change the minimum wage act.”