Minimum wage bill narrowly passes House
One of the stranger situations in Alaska politics unfolded on the House floor Sunday night.
Longtime supporters of raising the minimum wage voted against a bill that would do just that.
House Bill 384 not only boosts the minimum wage by $2 over the next two years, but also inflation-proofs it.
The bill turned up late in the session in answer to a similar minimum wage initiative scheduled to appear on the August primary ballot.
Under the state constitution, a ballot measure can be pulled from an election if the Legislature passes a substantially similar bill.
Democrats questioned Republican motives — because they have shown little interest in the past in raising the minimum wage — and accused them of trying to pull the initiative from the ballot because they’re afraid minimum wage supporters will also support the referendum on SB 21, the oil tax reform bill the Legislature passed last year.
On the House floor Sunday night, Democrats also worried that history would repeat itself. In 2002, lawmakers passed HB 56, a bill that increased the minimum wage to $7.15 and adjusted it for inflation thereafter.
The measure preempted a similar ballot initiative and in 2003, lawmakers gutted the portion of the bill which adjusted for inflation.
Lawmakers added 50 cents to the minimum wage in 2010, boosting it to $7.75 where it has since remained.
“Like Lucy and Charlie Brown, the football has been pulled out from underneath them many times,” said Rep. David Guttenberg, a Fairbanks Democrat.
Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat, said minimum wage workers would be earning more than $9.00 an hour today had the initiative gone through.
“That is a difference of $71 dollars per week. $285 a month,” Josephson said. “That’s $285 a month to drive down a rent of $1,200 to just over $900. It’s for gasoline, food, daycare, education.”
Rep. Craig Johnson, a South Anchorage Republican, offered to include a letter of intent for HB 384.
“This is intended to be a permanent expression of our desire to raise the minimum wage,” Johnson said.
But opponents said there are prohibitions against one Legislature legally binding a future one.
“My suspicions are not allayed,” said Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat. “With all due respect, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Rep. Sam Kito, a Juneau Democrat, said the bill was introduced April 4 and has only had one hearing on April 10.
“I would like to have a personal piece of legislation move that fast,” Kito said.
Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Hillside Republican, said he always surveys his constituents before the session and was surprised to find out how broad the support was in his district for increasing the minimum wage.
“My district, with an almost two-to-one margin, told me they wanted the minimum wage increase,” Hawker said. “And Mr. Speaker, I truly respect my district’s voice.”
Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Republican from Wrangell, also spoke out in support of the minimum wage bill.
She told lawmakers that the increases would take effect six months before the initiative could be passed and represent a substantial amount of money to workers.
“It’s going to make a difference of $1,250 to one of those minimum wage earners,” Wilson said. “For some of those people, $1,000 is as far away from them as the stars are from us.”
In the end, the minimum wage bill passed 21-19, with a few Democrats and Republicans crossing party lines.
After the vote came another surprising turn of events.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, in a rare move, temporarily turned over his speaker duties to House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt.
Chenault then stepped down from his seat on the speaker’s podium and spoke from the floor, where he lodged a complaint against one of the organizers of the minimum wage initiative, Ed Flanagan, a former state labor commissioner.
Chenault referred to a photograph taken of Flanagan during a House Labor and Commerce Committee on April 9, holding up a notebook with a big dollar sign sketched on it.
“You tell me what story does the picture tell. 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.
“We won’t tolerate this kind of behavior that you’ve seen in this picture,” said Chenault, who said the incident brought back memories of the Bill Allen corruption case. Allen was the former VECO boss convicted of bribing lawmakers.
Flanagan said Chenault confronted him immediately after the dollar sign incident.
Flanagan said he told Chenault he was just trying to get a lawmaker to ask a question about a fiscal note on the bill.
“What I have to admit was a rather clumsy effort,” said Flanagan, who said he then realized how the incident must of appeared to Chenault. “I said, ‘Mr. Speaker, I apologize. I don’t think anybody would construe that that way. And if anybody does, I would be glad to explain to them that was not my intention.’”
Chenault’s flare-up Sunday night is just another sign that levels of suspicion are high on both sides of the aisle.
The minimum wage bill now goes to the Senate.