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Bill to boost Alaska's minimum wage introduced in Legislature - and criticized by backers of ballot measure

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- The House leadership introduced a bill Friday to raise the minimum wage in Alaska, but supporters of a ballot initiative to do the same thing said the move is eerily similar to one in 2002 when Republicans passed a wage bill only to gut it the next year.

"They are counting on Alaskans to forget that they've pulled this trick before," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage.

The minimum wage bill, House Bill 384 emerged Friday with just two weeks to go in the session. It was introduced by the House Rules Committee, which is controlled by the Republican House leadership.

The bill had no sponsor statement Friday, nor any sponsorship from individual legislators. Like any new bill, its title was read on the House floor and it got a committee referral -- in this case, to the House Labor & Commerce Committee.

The chairman of Labor & Commerce, Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, has worked closely with House leadership, including filling in as Rules Committee chairman this week. A hearing on HB 384 was scheduled for April 9 -- 11 days before the Legislature is due to adjourn.

The bill and the initiative would raise the state's minimum wage from the current $7.75 to $8.75 in 2015, then add another dollar in 2016. Both measures would index the future minimum wage to inflation and guarantee it was at least $1 over the federal minimum wage, though the language of each is not identical.

Ed Flanagan, prime sponsor of the initiative and a labor commissioner under Gov. Tony Knowles, said he suspects Republicans are attempting to knock the measure from the ballot.

Alaska law allows the Legislature to preempt a ballot initiative by passing a similar law in the session before the vote. Republicans did that in 2002, killing off a minimum wage initiative that was substantially similar.

Then, in 2003, the Legislature gutted its own law from the year before, Flanagan said, stripping it of its inflation proofing.

That couldn't have happened if the minimum wage increase had been approved by voters. State law prohibits the Legislature from tampering with an initiative for two years.

"This is a cynical attempt to supplant the initiative and come back next year rather than wait at at least till the 2017 session, which they'd have to do, to remove the cost of living adjustment, which legislators always hate," Flanagan said.

Neither Olson nor House Speaker Mike Chenault returned calls seeking comment. At a news conference March 27, Rep. Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican and the House majority leader, said his caucus was then considering a minimum wage bill because it would be popular.

"Obviously the public very much supports it, and as representatives of the public, shouldn't we just go ahead and do the will of the public?" Pruitt said.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat and union attorney who is author of the current minimum wage law, questioned why Republicans have suddenly reached that conclusion.

"They've had how many years to introduce a minimum wage bill and they haven't done it," Wielechowski said. "It took me years and we finally got a small increase. It was fought every step of the way by the very people who are proposing this legislation."

Initiative sponsors and supporters say they have been expecting the House bill and have been building support across party lines to kill it.

"I think they're going have a much bigger fight on their hands than they expect," French said.

Wielechowski described the House bill as"a cynical ploy."

"They don't want working people going out to vote at the polls because it could influence ballot propositions and elections in some way, but also I think they want the opportunity to do exactly what they did in 2002 which is to overturn the will of the people next year," Wielechowski said.

In 2001, when the minimum wage was $5.65, the Democratic Knowles administration asked the Legislature to raise it to $7.15 and tie future increases to inflation. When nothing happened, the AFL-CIO led an effort to bypass the Legislature and get the minimum wage increase on the 2002 ballot.

Then-Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, introduced a similar bill. It eventually passed the Republican dominated House 33-6, with only Republicans voting no. The Senate passed it 19-1. Again, the no vote was a Republican.

Then-AFL-CIO president Mano Frey expressed satisfaction at the result.

"We're very pleased that the legislators did the right thing," he said. "They came to grips with at least one thing that really helps the working people of Alaska."

French, joining the Senate in 2003, witnessed the unraveling.

"I watched the same people that voted for inflation proofing in 2002 vote to strip it out in 2003," French said. "That was burned into my consciousness then and I'm shocked that they would think that the Alaskan public is going to fall for it again."

Flanagan's organization, Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage, said if inflation proofing had been retained, the minimum wage today would be $9.53.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, a union official, said he would vote against the minimum wage bill if it reached the floor to prevent supplanting the initiative. "Let the voters decide on this," he said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 500-7388.

 


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com
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