Divided Alaska House passes minimum wage bill


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Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, center, facing camera, huddles with fellow minority Democrats during a break in the floor debate on a minimum wage bill on Sunday, April 13, in Juneau.

AP Photo/Becky Bohrer

JUNEAU — A divided Alaska House on Sunday voted to raise the state minimum wage, amid suspicions of lawmakers' motives.

Supporters of HB384 sought to allay fears, saying they had no intent to revisit the issue for at least two years, should a bill pass.

The bill, as introduced earlier this month, tracked closely with a ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage of $7.75 an hour by $2 an hour over two years and adjust it annually for inflation after that. The bill was changed on the floor through amendments offered by Republican majority members to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour through 2015 and to $10 an hour starting in 2016, adjusting it for inflation after that. The bill would take effect July 1.

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 who called on lawmakers to oppose HB384 and let the issue be decided by the people.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said he was there to vote for policy — and what he thought was the right thing to do — and nothing else. Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, said it is the job of lawmakers to represent the voice of Alaskans and said she didn't know how Alaskans benefited by having to wait for a minimum wage increase. She called it a pro-Alaska measure.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said the bill, in his opinion, was an effort to knock the initiative off the ballot.

The original vote was 22-18, with House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, accidentally voting yes. The final vote on reconsideration was 21-19, with Tuck joining other minority Democrats in voting no. Also voting no were nine members of the GOP-led majority, including Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, who said he thought the proposed minimum wage should be higher.

The bill next goes to the Senate. Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, this past week said he thought lawmakers' motives had been "tainted" by past actions and that there was probably reluctance among senators to move forward on a bill.

Herron had requested a legal opinion on whether amending the bill to raise the per-hour increase would be considered substantially similar and cause the initiative to be removed from the ballot. Legislative attorney Dan Wayne, in a memo dated Thursday, said probably yes. While Wayne said the lieutenant governor, with concurrence of the attorney general, is responsible for deciding if a bill is substantially similar, he said a court would probably find the narrow purpose of the initiative — an increase in wage over two years, adjusted thereafter for inflation — is accomplished by a bill doing the same but proposing a higher minimum wage than the initiative does.

Representatives approved a letter of intent, stating that, if the bill passed, lawmakers did not plan to revisit the issue for purposes or amendment or repeal for at least two years. Legislators can't repeal voter-passed initiatives within two years of their effective dates.

Minority Democrats voted against the nonbinding letter and said the people had earned the right to be cynical. While they said they supported raising the minimum wage, they said people should get a chance to vote on the issue.

Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, said she was suspicious with the timing of the bill and the speed with which it has moved. HB384 was introduced April 4, and had one hearing this past week before moving to the floor. Drummond also said she was suspicious about the "sudden interest" in inflation proofing. She said she was not suspicious of the initiative process.

In 2002, the Legislature pre-empted a proposed initiative by passing a measure to raise the minimum wage and allow it to be adjusted for inflation. The measure also 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, legislators stripped the inflation adjustment requirement and reference to the minimum wage being $1 higher than the federal level.

In 2009, the Legislature passed a measure stating that, beginning in 2010, the minimum wage had to be at least 50 cents more than the federal minimum wage. That is in effect today.

House Speaker Mike 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. He told reporters he couldn't recall why he voted as he did in 2003, noting the number of bills he's considered since then. But he said he has matured and said, should the bill pass, he is committed to stop any changes to it that might be proposed.

Following Sunday evening's vote, Chenault made the rare move of stepping down as presiding officer to speak on the floor. He directed members to a photo of Ed Flanagan, a former state labor commissioner and a sponsor of the ballot initiative, holding up a sheet of notebook paper with a dollar sign on it during a hearing on the bill.

Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he didn't know what Flanagan — who he didn't refer to by name — was trying to telegraph but he said appearances matter and that leadership will protect the integrity of the process. He recalled a corruption scandal that ensnared several lawmakers a number of years ago.

Flanagan told reporters he was trying to get a committee member's attention to ask about the bill's fiscal note. He said he explained that to Chenault after the hearing. Flanagan said it never occurred to him how it might look.

He said Chenault bringing it up was a smoke screen to draw attention away from an "embarrassing" vote.

 

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