AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers and business groups continue to push for a compromise on changes to Maine’s voter-approved minimum wage increases but face deep skepticism from Democrats and their progressive allies.

Last week, a legislative committee heard hours of testimony on a bill that would rollback Maine’s new minimum wage from $10 to $9.50 an hour beginning June 1 and only increase the wage by 50 cents each January rather than the $1-per-hour pay hike approved by voters. The controversial bill, L.D. 1757, also would establish a lower “youth minimum wage” for minors and a “training wage” for workers ages 18 to 20 during the first 90 days of their employment, thereby adding Maine to the lengthy list of states allowing lower wages for younger workers.

On Wednesday, members of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee delayed a vote on the bill until next Wednesday. Bill sponsor Rep. Joel Stetkis of Canaan and other Republicans requested additional time to work on an amended bill that appears likely to propose lower youth and training wages, but not the proposal to lower the $10-an-hour wage that took effect on Jan. 1.

“I don’t think there is anyone in this room that is in favor of a rollback of wages. I’m not sure why it ended up in this bill,” said Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the committee co-chair. But Volk said the issue of youth and training wages is complicated and that multiple states with higher minimum wages than Maine also have exemptions that allow for lower wages for young or inexperienced workers.

But Rep. Dillon Bates, a Westbrook Democrat who teaches, said Maine Department of Labor statistics also show that size of the teenage workforce in Maine is declining.

“I worry because we don’t want to make them feel too devalued” by paying less than minimum wage, Bates said.

In November 2016, 55.5 percent of Maine voters approved a ballot initiative increasing the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 an hour in January 2017 followed by additional $1-an-hour increases each year through 2020. Lawmakers last year changed the rules regarding tipped employees, but Democrats rejected other attempts to alter the minimum wage law further.

During last week’s public hearing, business owners from across the state testifying in person or submitting written comments said they supported a youth or training wage, especially for seasonal or retail jobs typically filled by high school students. Business owners also warned that the additional $1-an-hour wage increases in future years would be difficult if not impossible to absorb without steep price increases, with some predicting it could force them to close their doors.

“It’s not solely because of the increase of the minimum wage,” Stetkis said. “It’s all of the reasons combined, and this just puts it over the top.”

But Democrats countered that Maine voters supported the minimum wage ballot initiative because it was all but impossible to live – much less support a family – on $7.50 an hour, which adds up to just $15,600 a year for a full-time worker. So while committee members were willing to delay a vote until next week, proposals to reduce future wage hikes or make other significant changes are likely to face opposition, especially in the Democrat-controlled House.

Committee co-chair Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said he understands business owners’ financial concerns, but that he wanted to make sure “the voice of working Mainers who are struggling to pay their rent” and who are benefiting from the higher wages is still represented in the debate.

The committee is expected to take up the bill again next week.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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