BOSTON (AP) — Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker are hoping to reach deals that would keep some prospective ballot questions from reaching voters in November, but they’re running short on time and their bargaining clout appears limited.
One initiative petition filed by Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition that includes unions, community activists and clergy, would gradually raise the state’s minimum wage from the current $11 an hour to $15 an hour by 2022. It would also raise the hourly sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, such as restaurant workers, from $3.75 to $9 in that same period.
The same group has offered a second proposed ballot question that would require all workers in the state to have access to paid family and medical leave.
Backers say a $15 minimum wage and paid leave would help lift many of the state’s workers out of poverty and assure they do not have to choose between their livelihoods or caring for their families.
Several business groups, including the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and the National Federation of Independent Business, say the measures could put some small employers out of business or force them to raise prices for consumers.
Enter the Legislature, which could try to fashion a compromise and avoid an expensive campaign to woo voters. But there is no consensus on what such an agreement might entail.
Lawmakers have only until the end of the month to act on the petitions, after which the sponsors may begin collecting the additional 10,792 signatures for each measure to secure a spot on the ballot. Negotiations could continue beyond May 1, but once the additional signatures are certified in early July there would be no legal means for removing the questions from the November ballot, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Both measures are currently before the Legislature’s Labor and Workforce Development Committee. Members of both panels told a recent gathering of small business owners in Boston they were concerned about the economic ramifications of the proposed ballot questions and would prefer compromise.
“We are listening to you because we are concerned about the minimum wage going too high and the tipped minimum and what paid family and medical leave would do,” said Democrat Jason Lewis, the Senate chair of the committee.
But lawmakers acknowledged they have little power to impose any middle ground, as Raise Up Massachusetts could simply reject any changes to the proposals.
“At the end of the day we don’t hold the cards — they do,” said Lewis. “And if it isn’t an agreement they find acceptable they will go to the ballot.”
Baker also told the small business owners that he hoped the minimum wage and paid leave issues would be settled “in the context of the legislative process,” though the governor has yet to formally take a position on either proposal.
Raise Up Massachusetts said it hoped the Legislature would approve the proposals in their current form or with minor technical revisions but appeared reluctant to cut any deal resulting in substantial changes.
“We’re not interested in making a concession that hurts workers or leaves anyone behind on these issues,” said Andrew Farnitano, a spokesman for the coalition.
Retailers like Neil Abramson, chief financial officer of a company that operates several consignment stores in Leominster, called for lawmakers to find a “reasonable solution.” Instead of helping workers, he feared the cost of increasing the minimum wage could force the company to trim hours or staff.
Douglas Bacon, president of Red Paint Hospitality Group, owners of several neighborhood bars and restaurants in Boston, said the proposed increase in the minimum wage for tipped employees would be “devastating” for small eateries.
“We will have to raise our prices dramatically to cover that 150 percent increase,” he said.
But supporters of the minimum wage and family leave measures say the concerns of business owners are overstated. They also point to Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, a national group of employers that has supported efforts to raise wages for the lowest-paid workers in several states.
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