JUNEAU -- A House committee approved a minimum wage bill in a single afternoon hearing Wednesday then rushed it toward a floor vote over the objections of dozens of Alaskans who testified and sent in comments. Opponents described it as a trick to uproot a ballot measure that would do the same thing but would be much harder to change later.
In what one witness aptly termed "Bizarro World" -- the distorted, cube-shaped planet in the Superman comic strip where everything is backward -- labor representatives, workers and a Democrat vigorously opposed the minimum wage bill while Republicans and that state's bar and restaurant association just as enthusiastically supported it.
"I never thought I'd be in the situation where I'm urging a no vote on a minimum wage bill," said Ed Flanagan, a former state labor commissioner and prime sponsor of the initiative.
But Flanagan said freshly minted House Bill 384, promoted at the House Labor & Commerce Committee hearing by House speaker Mike Chenault and his chief aide Tom Wright, was a "bad faith bill" designed solely to replace the initiative. Wright acknowledged the bill was mainly a copy of the initiative.
An initiative can't be touched by the Legislature for two years. But a bill that is "substantially similar" to a pending initiative will strike the initiative from the ballot, and as an ordinary law can be amended the next legislative session.
That's precisely what happened in 2002, witness after witness said Wednesday. A minimum wage bill on the ballot was usurped by the Legislature that year. Then, in 2003, one of its key components -- a cost of living escalator -- was amended out of the bill by many of the same legislators who supported it the year before.
Had that had that provision remained in Alaska law, Flanagan said, the minimum wage today would be $9.53. Instead, it's $7.75, 50 cents above the federal minimum.
Both the initiative and the bill would raise the state's minimum wage to $8.75 in 2015, then to $9.75 in 2016. Both measures would index the wage to inflation and guarantee it is at least $1 over the federal minimum wage.
Chenault said he simply wants to help working people and pledged that he himself wouldn't vote to amend the bill next year, though he acknowledged this Legislature could not commit any future one to leaving the wage bill intact.
Committee chairman Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, said the passage of the House bill would guarantee the minimum wage would rise, but the initiative would face an uncertain future with voters.
"I trust the voters -- I trust the working people of Alaska," said Bryan Imus, an organizer for the Laborers Union in Fairbanks who phoned in his testimony.
Rep. Andy Josephson, the sole member of the Democratic minority on the panel and the only legislator to vote against moving the bill, said people "earned their right to be cynical" about politicians because of what was happening with the wage bill.
"You'd rather suffer a defeat (at the ballot) and have your head held high than have the rug pulled out from under you," Josephson said.
The other Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, who caucuses with the majority, said he voted for the bill but said it should amended on the House floor to a higher rate. If he succeeded, the amendment could have the effect of making the bill too different from the initiative to knock it off the ballot.
Dale Fox of the bar and restaurant association Alaska CHARR was the only witness to testify for the bill. He said he supported it because it offered a "reasonable and measured" wage, "not for the skulduggery that people implied."
But Flanagan testified that "the hospitality folks" were around the Legislature earlier this session looking for a sponsor "to knock the initiative off the ballot."
He suggested that if they succeeded in passing a bill, next year they'd find a sponsor to amend it to allow tips to count toward the minimum wage -- something the bill and the initiative wouldn't allow. Flanagan challenged the industry to just fight the initiative in the open.
"If they want to oppose the minimum wage, we welcome their entry into the field on the election. Mount a campaign. Man up. Register with (the Alaska Public Offices Commission) and take us on, head on, and we'll prevail, two to one," Flanagan said.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER