MONTPELIER — Raising the minimum wage and using public dollars to fight opiate addiction are in the best interests of businesspeople.
That was the message Wednesday from House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell at a legislative breakfast sponsored by the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
The respective heads of the Vermont House and Senate were on hand to update chamber members on pending legislation, which includes a proposal approved Tuesday by the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee to raise the minimum wage in Vermont to $10.10 beginning Jan. 1, 2015.
Much like earlier discussions around paid sick leave, the proposal to raise the minimum wage has elicited testimony in opposition from a host of business owners who expressed concern the increase would be bad for business. Smith made the opposite argument Wednesday morning.
“Some of the biggest demand for public services comes from people who are earning minimum wage,” Smith said, citing the public dollars that are spent on food shelves, heating assistance and child care. “These are costs that the government is picking up.”
Campbell, a Democrat from Windsor County, concurred and said many people are right on the economic cusp, and with an increase in the minimum wage, they would no longer be eligible for benefits.
“You are better off paying a higher minimum wage than having us coming back and taxing you in a different way later,” Campbell said.
Smith said he expects the minimum wage bill will hit the House floor this session.
While the House plan would raise the minimum wage from the current $8.73 within the year, Gov. Peter Shumlin has called for the increase to be phased in over three years. Campbell said he also supports phasing in the increase in three increments over three years.
That argument did not hold much water for George Malek, president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
“I have not heard any business folks feeling relived that they would be protected from further tax increases if a minimum wage went through,” Malek said. “Whether or not it’s valid, and to what extent, will depend on their policymaking in the future. But I haven’t heard any business saying that’s the answer to not seeing higher taxes.”
Smith and Campbell also supported $10 million in the proposed budget to fight opiate addiction in the state. For Smith, whose wife is a physician who is involved in the treatment of opiate addiction, the problem often begins not on the street corner but in the doctor’s office.
“We have a problem in our society, and that is we overmedicate for pain,” Smith said. “When you talk to someone with an opiate addiction, the gateway is often prescription pain medication.”
Campbell appealed to business owners’ bottom lines.
“As a former police officer and as a businessman, I can tell you that if you’re not being robbed, you’re seeing an increase in your premiums to treat addiction,” Campbell said.
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