AUGUSTA — A last-ditch effort to raise Maine’s minimum wage to $10 an hour won a majority of votes in the Maine Senate on Thursday but still fell short of the numbers needed to become law.

Thursday’s 22-12 vote was the latest example of the unusual political dynamics surrounding the minimum wage in Maine.

Republican senators, backed by some of the state’s largest business organizations, touted the $10-an-hour proposal as a measured response to public demand for a higher minimum. But Democrats dismissed the proposal as an under-handed attempt to undercut the $12-an-hour minimum wage ballot question already headed to Maine voters this November.

As a result, the Republican-backed wage increase failed to garner the two-thirds majority it would eventually need, as a so-called “emergency measure,” to become law before the November elections.

“You should respect the will of the people. They deserve a straight up or down vote” in November, said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford. “Make no mistake about it, a competing measure of any form is designed to undermine the ballot initiative before voters this November. This (bill) before you is a back-door attempt to put a competing measure on the ballot.”

The business groups backing the $10-an-hour proposal – including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Restaurant Association and the Retail Association of Maine – have warned that the $12-an-hour ballot proposal could harm the state’s business climate. They have focused much of their recent concern on language that would eventually phase out the tip credit that currently allows business owners to pay waiters, bartenders and other tipped employees less than the current $7.50 minimum wage.

The proposal debated Thursday evening would have increased Maine’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour this July followed by 50 cent annual increases until the wage hit $10 an hour in 2019. The bill would not have changed the tip credit.

The ballot initiative headed to voters this November – which was led by the liberal activist group the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine AFL-CIO – would raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour in 2017, followed by annual $1 increases until it hits $12 an hour in 2020. The groups gathered more than 90,000 signatures from Maine voters to qualify for the ballot.

In an unusual sight, Republican lawmakers who have opposed past attempts to increase Maine’s minimum wage spoke in favor of the more modest proposal.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, acknowledged that he resisted those past efforts even when they were pushed by fellow Republicans. Thibodeau said it was a tough decision for Republicans because, “make no mistake, Republicans don’t have a history of wanting to increase the minimum wage.”

“This is not an end run, this is not an attempt to stop folks from having their opportunity to weigh in on $12-an-hour,” Thibodeau said. “But it is a recognition, a recognition from this side of the aisle that something needs to happen, that $7.50 isn’t going to work and that we need to do something.”

The bill now heads to the Democratic-controlled House, where it is unlikely to come close to the two-thirds needed to be enacted as an emergency measure.

Peter Gore, vice president at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, was not giving up on Thursday evening but was disappointed that the measure did not receive more Democratic support in the Senate.

“The people who voted against this voted against a sure thing, a guaranteed increase in the minimum wage,” Gore said. “For all the talk around here about the minimum wage, that’s surprising.”

But Maine AFL-CIO executive director Matt Schlobohm dismissed the bill and said he was not surprised by the outcome.

“It was clearly a competing measure designed to derail and delay a minimum wage increase and undermine the will of the voters,” Schlobohm said. “And it will ultimately be defeated by the Legislature, as every other competing measure has.”

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