BRATTLEBORO -- There is undeniable momentum -- even among some conservative-leaning lawmakers -- for a proposal to significantly raise Vermont's minimum wage.
But votes over the past week in the state House of Representatives showed differences among local legislators on the proper size and speed of that increase. A majority in the House approved a jump from $8.73 per hour to $10.10 hourly as of Jan. 1, a move supported by three-quarters of Windham County's delegation.
"I voted with the majority, believing that working people deserve an honest wage for an honest day's work," said Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro. "I believe this will also help to stimulate the local economy by putting a bit more money in people's pockets for spending.
But others supported a failed amendment to move more slowly, raising the wage only to $9.19 on Jan. 1 and enacting higher wages in 2016 and 2017.
"That amendment was consistent with the position of the governor, and it would give our smallest retailers -- ‘ma and pa' stores -- the opportunity to plan and prepare," said Rep. Tim Goodwin, an independent who represents the Windham-Bennington-Windsor House district. "The amendment had bipartisan and independent support (including mine), but unfortunately it did not make it."
If the current bill (H.552) becomes law, Vermont would be the first state with a minimum wage of more than $10 per hour. Gov. Peter Shumlin supports that wage, but he has proposed an incremental approach that reaches $10.
The House is in more of a hurry. Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro and vice chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, has been a strong proponent for more economic equality and has pushed hard for a higher minimum wage.
"The Vermont minimum wage in February 1968, in current dollars, was $11 an hour. And for two decades, the 60s and the 70s, it surpassed our current rate," Moran said. "We began to play catch-up this week by raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour on January 1, 2015, the first step toward reclaiming the American dream that was alive during my teenage years in the 1950s. Then, we had an educated labor force, robust unionism, a large middle class, wage increases, workers buying more, companies hiring more, revenues increasing and government investing more (such as the Eisenhower interstate system)."
Burke believes a higher minimum wage "will also lesson dependence on state services for those with the lowest incomes, thus saving the state money."
"There has been an erosion in the buying power of wages as incomes have shifted to top earners, the middle class has shrunk and those on the lowest rung of the ladder have trouble providing for their families," Burke said.
Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, has expressed concern about the effect of raising the minimum wage on businesses.
"I would much rather see greater economic development ... but that requires an expanding economy, and right now, our economy is not expanding," Hebert said.
He believes there now is widespread support in the House for raising the state's minimum wage. But Hebert backed an amendment -- proposed by four lawmakers including Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham -- that would have implemented minimum wages of $9.19 on Jan. 1, 2015; $9.64 on Jan. 1, 2016; and $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2017.
"If the amendment would have passed, I would have voted for the bill," Hebert said.
But the amendment failed on a Tuesday roll-call vote. Hebert, Trieber and Goodwin supported the amendment, while the area's other nine lawmakers voted against it.
The split was the same on a later roll-call vote for boosting the wage to $10.10 hourly on Jan. 1, 2015. That passed 87-57, with nine local lawmakers supporting it while Goodwin, Hebert and Trieber opposed it.
The House gave final approval to implementing the $10.10 rate in 2015 on a Wednesday voice vote. The matter now goes to the Senate.
"It hurts my feelings every time a store like Mach's in Pawlet comes to the threshold of demise, but there are many representatives who do not identify with such community retailers because that is not the environment they live in," Goodwin said. "There are also representatives who feel that these small retailers will be helped by a community with more cash in its pocket. I hope they are right."
The higher wage will have a Senate supporter in Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, who has sponsored a bill that would raise the rate to $12 hourly.
"Because low-wage workers spend a much higher proportion of their money locally, a higher minimum-wage will be a boost to our local economy," said Galbraith, a Townshend Democrat. "And it will not cost jobs. Most minimum-wage jobs are in the service sector, and these are not mobile. You cannot flip a hamburger in New Hampshire and serve it in Brattleboro."
In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- Another paycheck issue -- the prevailing wage -- was the subject of an important House vote. Moran said the bill (H.878) "replaces our state prevailing-wage determination with the federal Davis-Bacon standard, already in place in Vermont on federally funded projects, and which includes benefits in cost computation."
The bill passed a roll-call vote 95-52 on Wednesday and subsequently received final House approval on a voice vote.
"Prevailing wage refers to base pay by job category on government-funded construction projects," Moran said. "Currently, Vermont has the lowest prevailing wages for state contracts in the greater New England area due to our not including benefits in determining the actual labor costs. There are two major negative consequences of the present wage computation: Lower pay to working Vermont families, and underbidding of contractors who do provide benefits by contractors who don't."
Another supporter was Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, who said research "shows that a robust prevailing wage statute that is calculated based on wages and benefits does not cause a significant impact on costs."
"Studies also show that, when you take into account increased productivity and efficiency produced by a higher-paid workforce, this offsets any marginal increase in labor costs," Stuart said. "There is clear evidence that an increased prevailing wage rates results in positive benefits to local and state economies because workers invest their increased compensation back in the economy."
Voting against the prevailing-wage bill on Wednesday were Goodwin, Hebert and Trieber.
"I talked to contractors down in our region, and they're very concerned about it. It gives the New Hampshire businesses a tremendous edge over our companies," Hebert said. "It's another thing that could hurt our businesses."
-- Burke, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said a miscellaneous motor-vehicle bill previously approved by her committee likely will come to the full House for a vote next week.
It includes provisions for a four-year driving privilege card -- currently, only a two-year card is allowed -- as well as "the ability to receive a nondriver ID card, free of charge, to persons whose licenses are revoked or suspended due to a physical or mental condition."
Also, the bill allows a nonresident who holds a license from another country and a legal work visa the ability to drive in Vermont for up to one year using his or her home-country license.
"This provision benefits particularly those fruit pickers and other workers with an H2A visa," Burke said. "Prior to this, a tourist could drive for up to one year, but a legal worker needed to get a Vermont license."
-- Following their win last month at Vermont's Junior Iron Chef competition, three members of the Leland & Gray team dubbed the "Rebel Amigas" visited the Statehouse on Tuesday.
Students Kaylah Jacobs, Bailey Gouin and Anastasia Stevens were joined by Chef Joe Gerardi of The Abbey Group; Susan Jones, a Leland & Gray family and consumer science teacher; and Victoria Chertok, the school's 21st Century coordinator.
The Rebel Amigas, who won a Mise en Place award at the March 22 competition in Essex Junction, were among six teams invited to Montpelier. They received public recognition via the reading of a House resolution, then prepared their winning recipes for legislators and employees.
"While proudly serving their food, they met local Reps. Richard Marek and Carolyn Partridge," Jones wrote in an e-mail to the Reformer. "After serving their food, they were treated to lunch in the cafeteria by Abbey Food Group's Chef Ray Wood. During lunch, they were joined by Karen Taylor Mitchell from the Governor's Institute, who spoke with the team about the institute's Farm, Food & Your Future week. Rebecca Sanborne Stone, a VT FEED consultant, interviewed the team about their participation in Junior Iron Chef."
Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275. Follow him on Twitter @MikeReformer.