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Minimum wage bill has ballot initiative supporters on edge

Suzanna Caldwell
The Alaska House of Representatives introduced a bill mirroring a ballot initiative that would increase the minimum wage by $2 in the coming years, and that has supporters concerned.

Supporters of a ballot initiative that would increase minimum wage in Alaska are worried a new bill from the legislature could take them back to square one.

The House Rules Committee Friday introduced House Bill 384, which mirrors the language of the ballot initiative that would increase Alaska's minimum wage by $2 over the next two years and adjust for inflation after that.

If passed, the bill would render the initiative null, and it would not go to voters in the fall.

On its face, there seems to be little issue between the initiative and the bill. But there's one crucial difference in how these laws are created: If it's passed by the voters, the Legislature cannot alter the law for at least two years. But if the Legislature passes the bill, it can come back next session and modify it.

That's what has Ed Flanagan worried. Flanagan, former Alaska labor commissioner and now chair of Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage, doesn't have much faith in a bill passing, thanks to history.

"We're going to call this for what it is," Flanagan said Friday. "This is a phony bill."

That's because in 2002, things were looking eerily similar. An initiative was poised for the fall ballot, but with support for the effort high, the Legislature passed a bill that that was "substantially similar" to the initiative. The next year the Legislature reconvened and stripped the bill of an "inflation index" that would have tied the minimum wage to inflation increases -- "effectively gutting" the law, in Flanagan's words. He said that had the inflation index stuck, Alaska's minimum wage would be $9.53 today instead of $7.75.

The new initiative seems to have broad support. Sponsors were able to collect 43,000 signatures to put the effort on the August primary ballot. A recent poll sponsored by the Alaska House majority found that 69 percent of respondents supported raising the minimum wage.

That poll piqued the curiosity of House legislators. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said Friday he decided to introduce the bill because the House "has the right to weigh in on an issue that deals with Alaskans."

Chenault said it would be interesting to watch how the bill proceeds. Ballot initiatives fail all the time, he said, and if it does pass the Legislature that guarantees Alaskans will get a minimum wage increase.

Chenault said it's not his intention to take the inflation element out of the bill should it pass. He noted it's been 12 years since the last minimum wage bill, with a new Legislature full of new representatives. So far, he said, he hasn't talked to anyone who has any interest in stripping out the inflation increase.

"I've told folks that if we go through with it, we need to make sure that we leave the bill alone and that it goes forward as written, the way that the initiative is currently proposed," he said.

But Flanagan doesn't believe that. Of the 39 Republicans in the Legislature, he said, 10 of them voted to "gut" the bill in 2002, including Chenault. Flanagan worries that not only could they come in and pull out the inflation element, but they could propose stripping out the second $1 increase that would take effect in 2016.

"The people ain't that different," Flanagan said, "and the ideology and philosophy is not different at all."

The bill has its first hearing set for April 9 in the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

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