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Minimum wage hike clears state House despite Democrats' accusations of foul motives

Richard Mauer
Becky Bohrer

JUNEAU -- The House passed a minimum wage hike Sunday that had Republicans touting their support for the working poor and Democrats infuriated that the bill was a dirty trick to knock a similar initiative from the ballot.

The bill passed by a single vote, 21-19, with eight Republican defections, both from conservatives who philosophically questioned the minimum wage, and moderates who backed the Democratic notion that Alaska voters, and not legislators, should decide the issue.

The bill, greased by leadership, raced through the House, facing only a single hearing in one committee and landing on the floor just 9 days after its introduction.

But it faces a more questionable future in the Senate. It will travel across the Capitol from the House with only a week to go before scheduled adjournment and major issues still awaiting action, many still in committee. At the same time, it's less certain that Senate Republicans, with their strong moderate bloc, would be as willing as House Republicans to push the bill along.

The issue that turned normal politics on its head was the hard-fought minimum-wage initiative, backed by Democrats, labor and others. In floor debate, Democrat after Democrat -- there are only 10 in the minority caucus -- recalled 2002, when the Legislature preempted a similar initiative with a bill, only to gut it in 2003 by removing a cost-of-living increase. Had the initiative passed instead, a clause in the Alaska Constitution would have prevented Republicans in the Legislature from touching it at least until 2004.

"This is the public's House and the public deserves the truth," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, challenging the motives of Republicans. "We've seen this play before."

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, offered a signed letter of intent that the Legislature wouldn't renege on its promise next year, but he acknowledged the letter had no force of law -- one Legislature can't bind a future one to any course of action.

The Alaska minimum wage now is $7.75. Had the cost-of-living increase been retained in 2003, it would now be $9.53. The initiative would bump the minimum wage to $8.75 next year and $9.75 the following year. On the floor Sunday, Republicans sweetened the pot, increasing their bill by a quarter to $9 and $10, and making it take effect six months earlier than the ballot measure.

Unmentioned during the debate were two looming votes, one in August and the other in November, that could be influenced by a large turnout of voters supporting a minimum wage.

If the Legislature adjourns on time, the initiative would be on the statewide primary ballot, the same as the referendum to repeal the oil-tax cuts of 2013. If the Legislature goes into overtime, even by just a few minutes, the initiative would move to the November general election, where it might influence the vote between U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and whomever Republicans select as his challenger.

At a press conference after the vote, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, asserted the elections played no role in the decision by House leaders to introduce the wage measure.

"The oil-tax vote is not up to us," he said.

The Alaska Constitution sets the basic rules for initiatives and referendums, and it says that if the Legislature passes a substantially similar bill to an initiative, it must come off the ballot.

At the press conference, Chenault and two other legislators who served in 2003 and voted to gut the 2002 minimum wage were asked to explain their decision then and why they could be trusted now.

"I can't tell you why -- I can tell you I've matured," Chenault said.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, at first said she couldn't remember, then said that the Legislature was making cuts everywhere because oil prices had fallen.

But that's not true -- in 2003, oil prices were starting their historic climb after relative stability for more than a decade.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said he had just been elected and hadn't been in office for the 2002 bill, but he wanted to take out the inflation clause because he generally doesn't like them. However, he said, he accepted the cost-of-living increase in the House bill Sunday because his Hillside and South Anchorage constituents solidly backed a minimum wage increase.

After the bill was approved and a recess declared, Chenault climbed down from the Speaker's chair and traded places with Rep. Lance Pruitt, the majority leader. From the floor, Chenault displayed a photo that had been taken by a legislator or an aide during the minimum wage bill hearing at the Labor & Commerce Committee Wednesday.

The picture showed Ed Flanagan, the prime sponsor of the initiative, holding up a piece of paper with a scrawled dollar sign. Chenault said the picture reminded him of the Veco scandal, when FBI agents set up a hidden camera in the Baronof Hotel and captured payoffs to legislators.

It was no such thing, said Flanagan, who was outside the House chambers for the vote. He held up the sign to remind Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, to ask the backers of the wage bill whether they were going to get a fiscal note showing how much the measure would cost the state.

Josephson said he never saw the sign.

Flanagan said Chenault was raising a smokescreen to divert attention away from the bill.

Republicans voting in favor of the bill: Chenault; Hawker, Pruitt, Mia Costello, Lindsey Holmes, Craig Johnson, Charisse Millett, all Anchorage; Dan Saddler and Lora Reinbold, Eagle River; Shelly Hughes, Palmer; Mark Neuman, Big Lake; Wes Keller, Wasilla; Eric Feige, Chickaloon; Pete Higgins and Steve Thompson, Fairbanks; Doug Isaacson, North Pole; Paul Seaton, Homer; Kurt Olson, Soldotna; and Peggy Wilson.

Democrats in favor: Neal Foster, Nome, and Ben Nageak, Barrow.

Republicans against: Gabrielle LeDoux and Bob Lynn, Anchorage; Bill Stoltze, Chugiak; Lynn Gattis, Wasilla; Alan Austerman, Kodiak; Cathy Munoz, Juneau; and Tammie Wilson, North Pole.

Democrats against: Josephson, Harriet Drummond, Les Gara, Max Gruenberg, Geran Tarr and Chris Tuck, all Anchorage; Bryce Edgmon, Dillingham; David Guttenberg and Scott Kawasaki, Fairbanks; Bob Herron, Bethel; Sam Kito III, Juneau; and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Sitka.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com and 907-500-7388.

 


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com