MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate backed legislation Friday to raise the state’s minimum wage, setting up a showdown with the House, which has supported a faster hike in the hourly rate.
The Senate version, which received preliminary approval on a 20-8 vote, would raise the minimum hourly rate for workers to $10.50 in 2018, with several steps in the interim. It would raise the rate from its current $8.73 an hour to $9.15 on Jan. 1. The wage would then go to $9.60, $10 and $10.50 over the next three years. Annual cost-of-living increases based on the consumer price index would resume in 2019.
The House-passed version would raise the rate to $10.10 on Jan. 1.
Both versions differ from Gov. Peter Shumlin’s plan, which calls for increasing the wage to $10.10 in increments over a three-year period. He has been touting that plan since attending a March event in Connecticut with President Barack Obama and other New England governors.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee, said testimony indicated the House version would be a hardship on businesses.
“What we heard repeated in the Economic Development Committee was that doing it, so much so quickly, was going to be very hard for Vermont to absorb,” Mullin said. “The Economic Development Committee took extensive testimony trying to find a balance.”
Mullin said spokespeople at Sugarbush Resort in Warren claim they will immediately lay off between 50 and 80 workers if the House version of the bill is enacted. Mullin said the resort would implement technology to replace workers checking lift tickets.
“These were the type of things that we were dealing with,” he said.
Mullin said the consensus plan drafted by his committee “doesn’t have an immediate shock on the business community.”
“Whether or not we have found the proper balance to try to help lift people up on the bottom end of the wage scale is hard for me to say,” he said.
Some senators wanted to be more aggressive, including Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, and Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden.
Pollina introduced an amendment to bump the wage to $10 on Jan. 1, followed by a jump to $10.50 on Jan. 1, 2016, and annual cost-of-living raises each year thereafter based on the consumer price index. The amendment was defeated.
Pollina said he hoped to raise Vermonters out of poverty while “pumping a lot of money into our local economy.”
“What we want to do is put more money in the pockets of Vermonters so they can support small businesses,” he said.
Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, said he wanted a minimum wage high enough that taxpayers are no longer “paying the labor costs of a lot of America’s most profitable companies.” He said low wages are possible because of the “explosion” of assistance programs offered by government.
The Senate will look to give final approval to its bill early next week, which will then need to be reconciled with the House version. It is likely headed for a conference committee where negotiators from both chambers will work to settle differences.
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