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GOP puts minimum wage bill on fast track to help boost prospects for oil tax law

Dermot Cole
Aaron Jansen illustration

JUNEAU -- A legislative effort to boost the minimum wage in Alaska, partly aimed at lowering voter turnout in August by eliminating a campaign issue, has reached the House floor for a full vote with a minimum of review.

That’s because it has as much to do with the survival of the oil tax cut approved a year ago as with the survival of people earning the minimum wage.

The bill, introduced six days ago by the GOP leadership, is set for a vote in the House Sunday following a single committee hearing at which the testimony was almost entirely negative.

If the Legislature approves the bill to raise the minimum wage, an initiative to do the same thing would not be on the ballot, perhaps removing an incentive to vote for a portion of the electorate.

Republican proponents of the fast-moving wage bill are opponents of the effort to repeal the oil tax. The polling data shows the minimum wage is popular with the populace, so keeping it off the ballot could change the dynamics of the August primary. Exactly how much is impossible to say.  

Democratic proponents of efforts to repeal the oil tax have become opponents of the minimum wage bill, an unusual tactical reversal. A second underlying issue is that if the Legislature approves the minimum wage bill this year, the measure could be changed next year, something that happened 12 years ago on another minimum wage measure. An initiative cannot be changed for two years.

The thinking among legislators of both parties is that supporters of the minimum wage increase are likely to be supporters of the oil tax repeal. More than 43,000 people signed the initiative to get the oil tax initiative on the ballot, which is a significant voting bloc.

Ed Flanagan,  former labor commissioner and sponsor of the minimum wage initiative drive, testified Wednesday. "There is nothing you can say now to convince anybody that this is anything other than a ploy to take the initiative off the ballot," he said. "I personally think people overstate the impact that initiatives like this have in bringing people out, but I guess it could make some difference in a really close election." He said if that is the goal, it is an "improper electioneering motivation."

The initiative and the bill would both raise the wage from $7.75 to $8.75  until the end of 2015. After that it would go to $9.75. It would be adjusted for inflation starting in 2018.

If the measure wins approval in the House, it faces opposition from some Republicans in the Senate. Some senators have said they don't want to be seen as tampering with the election process.

Much of the testimony against the bill dealt with whether future lawmakers would decide to rewrite the rules once the initiative is out of the way, not with the fate of an oil tax measure that is officially unrelated, but closely connected.