House Passes Minimum Wage Bill, As Initiative Sponsors Cry Foul

House Speaker Mike Chenault stepped down from the dais Sunday, April 13, 2014, to speak out against minimum wage ballot organizer Ed Flanagan's holding of a dollar symbol sign in committee, and the perception of corruption it could have implied. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)
House Speaker Mike Chenault stepped down from the dais Sunday, April 13, 2014, to speak out against minimum wage ballot organizer Ed Flanagan’s holding of a dollar symbol sign in committee, and the perception of corruption it could have implied. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

As initiative supporters cried dirty tricks, the House narrowly passed a minimum wage bill that has the potential to knock their proposition off the ballot. The night only got more tense when the Speaker of the House fired back on the floor. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

Download Audio

The fight over the minimum wage bill got so ugly on Sunday night, legislators joked that they preferred debating abortion.

For about three hours, Democrats who have long advocated for increasing the minimum wage spoke against the bill, while free market Republicans said they had seen the light and believed the minimum wage should be increased as quickly as possible.

More than policy, the conversation focused on motive and trust. Fairbanks Democrat Scott Kawasaki acknowledged he was in an unusual position of voting against a measure he liked, because he believed the intention was to manipulate the upcoming elections. He’s worried that Republicans’ end goal is to keep minimum wage supporters from coming out to vote in August, when a referendum to repeal the new oil tax law is also on the ballot.

“It’s a strange vote, and it’s going to be difficult to justify to my voters,” said Kawasaki. “I simply think this is a disingenuous piece of legislation. I think it was brought into session in the last week of session in order for this to pass, so this issue can be taken off the ballot.”

The minimum wage bill was introduced a little over a week ago, and it was modeled after the initiative. It bumps up the rate over the course of two years, then pegs the wage to inflation.

Because of a sour history regarding the last minimum wage initiative, bill supporters added a number of provisions to make it more appealing to skeptics. In 2002, the Legislature preempted a minimum wage initiative, only to gut it a year later. So this time, bill supporters added a letter of intent saying they wouldn’t touch the policy for two years. They also adopted one amendment to outdo the initiative’s increase, hiking the current minimum wage of $7.75 to $9 in the first year, and then $10 the year after. They adopted another to make the wage go into effect earlier.

Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, said the package was better than the one voters would see on the ballot.

“We are guaranteeing that the minimum wage will be increased,” said Johnson. “Whether you believe or not we’re going to change it, you’ve got to make that decision on your own. But we can guarantee that the minimum will be higher than the ballot initiative, enacted quicker than the ballot initiative.”

The minimum wage bill ultimately passed 21-19, with nine members of the majority caucus breaking ranks and siding with the minority. Some of those opponents from the majority said they did not like the politics surrounding the bill, while a couple had concerns that increasing the minimum wage could hurt businesses.

The bill has been a priority for House Speaker Mike Chenault. While the Nikiski Republican was one of the legislators who gutted the minimum wage law after passing it, he says he’s “matured” in the decade since and would oppose any effort to weaken the bill that’s currently before the Legislature.

Shortly after the vote, Chenault stepped down from the dais so he could freely comment on one of the initiative sponsors. He suggested that organized labor, which has contributed to the minimum wage initiative, was leaning on legislators inappropriately.

“We will not be coerced, threatened, or strong-armed into any other decision,” says Chenault.

Chenault also pointed legislators to a photograph of Ed Flanagan — a former labor commissioner and lead organizer of the initiative — taken at the bill’s only hearing. In the photograph, Flanagan is holding up a notepad, with a dollar sign scribbled on it.

Chenault said he did not know what Flanagan was trying to communicate, but that flashing a symbol like that at lawmakers was wrong given the Legislature’s history with bribery convictions.

But Flanagan says Chenault is taking things out of context. He says he was trying to get the attention of a legislators to ask why the bill had not gotten a fiscal note. That would have slowed the process down by requiring the bill to get another hearing, instead of just the one that was scheduled.

Flanagan says Chenault approached him after the hearing — something this reporter witnessed at the time — and explained what he was trying to communicate with the notepad. Now, Flanagan thinks Chenault is using the incident to distract from the vote itself.

“I think it’s a smokescreen,” says Flanagan. “He got a 21-19 vote. That’s pretty embarrassing for the Speaker in his majority, and it’s because of the hypocrisy that this vote represents.”

The bill now gets sent to the Senate, where members of leadership have said they are reluctant to take the bill up.