That time Democrats opposed a minimum wage hike

What if they held a vote to increase the minimum wage and most of the Democrats voted no? That’s what happened in Alaska on Sunday, where the vast majority of Democrats in the state House voted against a measure that would have given low-income workers one of the highest minimum wages in the entire country.

The state House voted by a 21-19 margin to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour on July 1, 2014, and to $10 an hour the following year. Twelve of the no votes came from Democrats, while just two voted to raise the wage.

Why would Democrats vote against a minimum wage increase when President Obama is trumpeting other state legislators, such as Minnesota and Maryland, for raising their wage floors? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, for political purposes.

A voter initiative that would have raised the state’s minimum wage qualified for the ballot in February. That initiative would have raised the wage from its current level, $7.75 an hour, to $8.75 an hour beginning on Jan. 1, and to $9.75 an hour the following year.

But Alaska’s state constitution allows the legislature to kick an initiative off the ballot if it passes a measure that’s substantially similar to the one slated for the ballot. If the state Senate passes the wage hike, and if Gov. Sean Parnell (R) signs it, the ballot initiative would likely be struck from the ballot; Republicans pointed out that the version that passed the House raised the wage higher, and sooner, than the ballot initiative would have.

The initiative that qualified in February was initially slated for the Aug. 19 primary ballot. But if the state legislature stays in session longer than scheduled — even by a few hours — state law requires the initiative to be pushed back to the November general election. And with several major issues the legislature must handle before its scheduled adjournment next weekend, an extended session looks likely.

That scenario, a longer-than-planned legisltaive session punting the minimum wage initiative to the November ballot, would likely be a boost to Sen. Mark Begich (D). Begich faces a difficult reelection bid against one of two likely Republican opponents — former state Natural Resources commissioner Dan Sullivan, the favorite of establishment Republicans, or Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

Democrats in the state House counter that they’ve seen this movie before: In 2002, the legislature played the same political game, passing a bill that indexed the minimum wage to inflation and booting a similar voter initiative off the fall ballot. The next year, the Republican-led legislature removed the cost-of-living adjustment.

Republican sponsors of the wage hike said they wouldn’t play political games with the current legislation, though Democrats are skeptical.

The fact that the legislative clock is ticking with so many big-ticket items left to go makes the bill’s future uncertain, at best. The Republicans who voted against the measure in the House form a moderate caucus that’s often overruled by the conservative majority; moderates hold more sway in the Senate, further diminishing the legislature’s prospects of quick passage.

But Democrats had a chance to score a minimum wage increase in a very red state, and to avoid the cost and risk of a ballot initiative. Blocking the bill means they will opt for a lower wage hike, albeit one that could benefit Begich in the long run.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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