A group backing an increase in Alaska's minimum wage submitted petitions Friday containing signatures of more than 43,000 Alaskans who support the issue going before voters in August.
Ed Flanagan, a former state labor commissioner and chairman of Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage, said bottom pay in Alaska has been too low for too long.
At the current $7.75-an-hour rate, someone working full time would make $16,120 over the course of a year -- above the poverty line for a one-person household, but below the level for two people and dramatically below it for a family of three.
"It ought to be worth somebody's while to go out and get a job and have some hope of being able to provide for themselves and their family. The current minimum wage is totally inadequate," Flanagan said.
Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, wheeled five banker's boxes full of petitions into the Division of Elections Midtown office, and election workers immediately began counting them.
"So you got them all here?" asked Carol Thompson, elections manager for petitions.
Yes, the labor leaders told her.
The group collected about 43,500 signatures though not all will be valid, Flanagan said. Some people sign twice without realizing it. Some may think they are registered voters but aren't. To make it to the August ballot, signatures of 30,169 registered votes must be verified, and they must come from 30 of the 40 House Districts.
The ballot initiative proposes to raise the minimum wage to $8.75 on Jan. 1, 2015, and to $9.75 a year later. After that, the rate would be adjusted for inflation or would be $1 more than the federal minimum wage, whichever is greater.
Backers of an increase want voters, not legislators, to approve the new rates.
Two leading business groups, the Anchorage and Alaska chambers of commerce, haven't taken a position on the proposal.
In Washington state, Alaska Airlines led the fight against a $15 minimum hourly wage for travel and hospitality workers in the city of SeaTac. A judge last month ruled the new pay rate wouldn't apply to the airport because it's owned by a separate government entity. Alaska Airlines representatives did not respond to requests for comment Friday about the Alaska measure.
Support may come from a surprising corner -- the bar and restaurant lobby. The Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailers Association's government affairs committee supports the group's proposed increase in the minimum wage, said CHARR president Dale Fox.
"It seems reasonable," he said Friday. "It's time for another bump and the bump is a reasonable amount." The statewide lobbying and training organization has about 660 members, and many already pay more than the minimum, he said.
The group will separately seek changes in state law, including to exempt workers who receive hefty tips, say $20 or more an hour, from increases in the minimum wage they earn on top of tips, Fox said. But they'd still earn a basic minimum wage.
'LET THE PEOPLE VOTE'
For the first four decades of statehood, Alaska's minimum wage was the highest in the country. It was set at 50 cents above the federal rate. Alaska's rank has fallen in recent years after other states boosted their rates.
Alaska now is No. 17 among the states, despite the high cost of living here. The Council for Community and Economic Research, which regularly evaluates the cost of living in more than 300 cities nationwide, has found that Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks or Kodiak all have significantly higher costs of living than average.
The measure's backers don't want legislators to squash a statewide vote by boosting the minimum wage themselves.
Back in 2002, after legislation to boost Alaska's minimum wage stalled, a labor-backed initiative sought to raise the minimum and ensure it went up with inflation or was at least $1 above the federal minimum wage, whichever was greater. But the Legislature pre-empted the effort by passing a similar bill.
Then a year later, lawmakers stripped away the inflation adjustment and improvement over the federal minimum.
"All of a sudden the Legislature got religion and ... passed the bill to keep it off the ballot," said Flanagan, who was labor commissioner at the time. "It came back a year later and gutted it."
A law passed in 2009 reinstated the provision for Alaska's minimum to be 50 cents above the federal minimum. The minimum wage here has been $7.75 since Jan. 1, 2010.
This time, backers are asking legislators to "let the people vote on it," Beltrami said. For a labor leader, he took an unusual position at the Jan. 11 Anchorage legislative caucus meeting and testified against the state Legislature acting to boost the minimum wage.
NORTHWEST STATES HIGH
Around the country, ballot measures boosting minimum wage typically pass overwhelmingly, the backers said. A close vote on the SeaTac measure was an exception.
Salaries in Anchorage tend to be high and are going up -- except for those at the bottom, Beltrami said. When the minimum wage rises, people rely less on public benefits, Flanagan said.
Flanagan and two other former labor commissioners, Tom Cashen and Jim Sampson, are sponsoring the ballot measure.
Efforts Friday to reach legislators who lead the labor committees were unsuccessful. The annual 90-day legislative session starts Tuesday, and lawmakers and their staffs are heading to Juneau.
About 65 percent of the signatures came through paid signature-gatherers, Flanagan said. Scott Kohlhaas, a political consultant whose signature-gathering business worked for the campaign, and lawyer Ken Jacobus came to the elections office to watch the petitions being processed.
If the ballot initiative passes, Alaska's minimum wage of $9.75 in 2016 would be higher than any state's current rate. About 30,000 Alaska workers likely would see an increase in pay, initiative backers said.
The states with the highest minimum wages are in the Pacific Northwest, with Oregon at $9.10 an hour, and Washington at $9.32 an hour. Both states peg their minimums to inflation.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER