With Talk Of Minimum Wage Bill, Initiative Sponsors On Guard

This week, the House Majority Caucus released a new poll showing that about 70 percent of Alaskans support a citizen’s initiative to raise the minimum wage. Now, that’s got some legislators talking about making the change themselves. But initiative sponsors are not welcoming the possibility.

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The way the Alaska Constitution is drafted, legislators get a shot at tackling initiative subjects before they end up on the ballot.

Lawmakers are guaranteed a session where they can introduce similar bills if they want, vet them, and vote on them. If the Legislature passes a substantially similar bill, the initiative is rendered moot and does not go out for a vote of the people.

Majority Leader Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican, says there’s a possibility that could happen with the minimum wage initiative, given its popularity.

“You know, there has been discussion on that. We haven’t come to a conclusion, but some people have the thought process of, ‘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’s statement came during a press availability with reporters on Thursday, and it provoked a heated reaction from one of the initiative’s lead advocates.

“It’s just a crock. There’s really no other way to describe it.” says Ed Flangan, one of three former labor commissioners who is spearheading the initiative.

Flanagan is sensitive to the Legislature pre-empting ballot measures — the whole thing is a raw subject for him.

In 2002, a similar minimum wage initiative was certified to appear before voters. That spring, the Legislature passed a bill practically identical to the ballot question, bumping up the base wage to $7.75 an hour and pegging the rate to inflation.

The law didn’t last a year on the books before it was changed.

“They came back in one of the more cynical things a pretty cynical group has ever done — came back less than a year later — and gutted the minimum wage bill they just passed by repealing the cost-of-living index,” says Flanagan. “If they had not repealed that provision, the minimum wage in Alaska would be $9.53 an hour instead of $7.75. We wouldn’t have an initiative before the people right now to try to fix what the Legislature broke in 2003.”

This year’s minimum wage initiative would bump the base rate to $8.75 in 2015, and then to $9.75 the year after. Like the attempted 2002 initiative, this one chains the minimum wage to inflation. If citizens pass it, the language cannot be modified for two years.

Flanagan is worried that if this Legislature introduces a minimum wage bill in the final weeks of session, it would just be history repeating.

“We will start advertising immediately,” says Flanagan. “This will not go unremarked. People are going to know what they’re up to.”

Pruitt says lawmakers remember what happened, too. But he says the concerns from sponsors are misplaced.

“No one wants to be seen as just doing this for a political reason,” says Pruitt. “They want to make sure they’re really representing the people that they represent.”

A bill pre-empting the initiative is not a sure thing. House Speaker Mike Chenault says it’s not on his radar, and Labor and Commerce Chair Kurt Olson says his House committee has not been approached to introduce a minimum wage bill. A spokesperson for the Senate Majority says the caucus discussed introducing minimum wage legislation early on in the session, but such a bill is not currently under consideration.

agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

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