Vermont House advances $12.55 per hour minimum wage bill

  • Rep. Rob LaClair, R-Barre, speaks against a minimum wage bill at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

  • Rep. Bob Hooper, D-Burlington, speaks in favor of a minimum wage bill at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Published: 1/25/2020 12:06:20 AM
Modified: 1/25/2020 12:06:06 AM

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House passed a bill Friday that would raise the state’s minimum wage from $10.96 to $12.55 by 2022. However, eight Democrats opposed the measure and could prevent the legislation from becoming law if it’s vetoed in the coming weeks.

A day after the House advanced a paid leave program, which also lacked the support needed to weather a veto from Republican Gov. Phil Scott, the minimum wage bill now also faces uncertainty.

The legislation, SB 23, which passed in a 93-54 vote, reflects a compromise made with the Senate, where Democrats had made raising the wage to $15 per hour a priority. It is expected to pass the Senate next week, before it is sent to the governor’s desk.

But moderate Democrats in the House, who are concerned that a fast-paced wage increase could harm small businesses and put stress on the economy, have been wary of a minimum wage hike.

And the compromise still failed to win over many centrist members of the party on Friday, who fear that even a slighter wage increase would burden rural areas of the state.

Other Democrats, who supported the bill, said they believe that ideally, it should go further.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, the chair of House General and Military Affairs Committee, which worked on the legislation, said that the increase was “not enough,” but an important step to giving some of Vermont’s lowest earners a raise.

“Increasing the minimum wage has always been a difficult task in this building,” Stevens said. “We fight for this wage to give these workers a little more money and a little more dignity.”

Scott struck down a $15 minimum wage bill in 2018, but he’s been evasive when asked if he could support the more modest wage increase. House Republicans said Friday that they don’t expect he will come around to the proposal. All but one Republican in the House voted against the minimum wage increase.

The governor is still concerned about the economic impacts of increasing the wage to $12.55, “particularly along the New Hampshire border and more rural areas,” his spokesperson Rebecca Kelley said.

“He does recognize the Legislature has come a long way from their initial $15/hour proposal, but he’ll need to take a closer look at the details and latest analysis,” she said.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson D-South Hero, said she was hopeful that the governor could let a more moderate minimum wage increase become law.

“The governor has an opportunity to actually make a difference for low-income Vermonters and take a step towards modest increases. And we hope he does so,” she said.

Johnson said that, if the bill is vetoed, lawmakers who voted against the measure will have to consider “whether they want to stand in the way” of a proposal that is “overwhelmingly supported by the Legislature and by Vermonters.”

Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, said he voted against the bill Friday because it “assumes that Vermont has one economy.”

“And that’s patently false. We have several economies in the state and most importantly a rural economy that I think will be hurt by the proposed legislation,” he said.

He said he could have a supported a minimum wage like what has been enacted in New York State, where New York City, the city suburbs and upstate New York are all seeing different wage increase schedules. Under New York’s legislation, rural parts of the state see a slower increase.

Gannon said that even if the governor vetoes the bill, it’s unlikely he would change his position.

“I think it’s very unlikely that I would change my vote,” he said. “I think there is a better way to do this and we didn’t consider it.”

Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, who opposed last year’s House proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by no earlier than 2026, voted against the $12.55 wage. She told her House colleagues she is concerned about the strain it could put on businesses in her area that are already struggling.

“When I vote no on this bill, I have a deep amount of fear for the businesses in my community,” Rogers said on the House floor.

Supporters of the bill say that raising the wage will attract more workers to the state, and help younger workers stay in Vermont.

“I support this bill for the youth and young people who need a boost economically,” said Becca White, D-White River Junction.

“This is not a big ask,” said Rep. Chip Troiano, D-Stannard, said of the bill. “This is a situation that can be handled by our businesses and small businesses. This is a piece of legislation that will support and attract people to Vermont.”

House lawmakers were concerned last year about the impact of raising the minimum wage could have on Medicaid-funded health workers.

Lawmakers learned that increasing the wage to $15 an hour would mean the state would need to pay tens of millions for some health workers at nursing homes, residential care homes, assisted living residences, and adult day agencies to see raises.

After the session adjourned, the House sought more information about what it would cost to cover the pay increases for the Medicaid health workers, if the minimum wage hike took effect.

If the wage was $12.55, Vermont would need to pay $4.1 million annually to fund the raises, according to the Joint Fiscal Office.

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