Technicality stalls minimum wage debate

MONTPELIER — A misprint in the House calendar discovered late Thursday night doomed consideration of a minimum wage bill until Saturday, just as Democratic leaders ramped up efforts to corral an unruly caucus.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, made a point of order around 10:30 p.m., hours after debate had begun. But House Speaker Shap Smith said minority Republicans were correct, and ruled that action must be postponed and placed back on the calendar, making Saturday the next day the bill will see action.

Democratic leaders were looking to pass a scaled back minimum wage bill from the more ambitious plan they previously passed. The new plan, hashed out following a day-long back-and-forth between the House, Senate and governor’s office, is much closer to one favored by Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The House’s latest proposal calls for a boost in the minimum wage for Vermont’s lowest-paid workers from the current $8.73 to $9.25 on Jan. 1, 2015. It would then rise to $9.75 in January 2016, followed by $10.10 in January 2017. Annual cost of living increases based on the consumer price index would occur each year after.

That’s vastly different from the original House-passed plan that would have jumped the wage to $10.10 beginning on Jan. 1, 2015. But that plan was unacceptable to the Senate and Shumlin, who have argued the business community needs more time to absorb any increase.

A contingent of members, including Democrats, were mounting an insurgency when debate was halted. They wanted to test the resolve of both the Senate and Shumlin and sought to concur with the Senate’s proposal.

The Senate approved its own version on Monday. It would have raised the minimum hourly rate to $10.50 in 2018. Until then, it would raise the rate from its current $8.73 an hour to $9.15 on Jan. 1. The wage would then go to $9.60, $10 and $10.50 over the next three years. Annual cost-of-living increases based on the consumer price index would resume in 2019.

Smith, speaking to reporters before his ruling, said some House members were disappointed with the latest House plan, which the Senate and governor had agreed to. Still, Smith said the issue was on the back burner until March, so the planned increase is progress for the chamber’s more progressive members.

“Our view was, well, we would like to get to $10.10 in one or two years, but more importantly, given the fact that we’re at the end of the day, why put a bill in jeopardy and play chicken?” Smith said.

Smith and other Democratic leaders used a caucus around 10 p.m. to further coax members to vote in their favor. But debate then had to be halted.

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