Rep. Matthew Trieber (D-Bellows Falls) presents the amended version of the minimum wage bill.
The Vermont House of Representatives advanced a bill Wednesday that would speed up annual increases in the state's minimum wage but, unlike the Senate version, sets no hard date by which wages would reach $15 an hour.
The 90-53 vote, if upheld by a final vote later this week, sets up a high-stakes late-session negotiation with the Senate and a possible veto by Gov. Phil Scott, who blocked similar legislation last year.
“We’re not taking anyone out of poverty with these wages, but we are going to make their lives easier on a week-by-week basis,” said Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury).
Vermont's minimum wage is currently $10.78, and the federal minimum wage is $7.25.
S.23 calls for increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2024, but the House version amended Wednesday would take a different route. It calls for increasing the minimum wage by 2.25 times the rate of change in the Consumer Price Index, which is used to track inflation, until it reaches $15.
Legislators estimate that would happen by 2026, two years later than the timetable in the Senate's proposal. After that, the increases would return to tracking the Consumer Price Index.
The bill overcame significant criticism from several quarters, including floor amendments by Progressives meant to speed up the pay hikes and efforts by conservative members to delay the bill’s implementation.
It also survived a mini-revolt among Democrats who argued the bill ought to contain funds to ensure that nursing home operators and other care providers that rely on Medicaid payments would be compensated for their increased costs.
Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) said that after “11 years of abject failure” by the legislature to increase Medicaid payments to providers, he was “incredibly skeptical” the funding issue would be taken up next year as promised.
“There is absolutely zero guarantee in this bill the Medicaid rates will be raised next year in a budget adjustment,” Till said, though he ultimately voted for the bill.
Rep. David Yacovone (D-Morristown), a former nursing home administrator, raised the same objection.
“We pay them all of $37 a day to care for our frail friends and neighbors in their facilities,” Yacovone said. “If we don’t give them the funds, how will they pay the increased minimum wage?”
The bill calls for a study to be completed by the end of the year analyzing how payments to a range of Medicaid providers should be increased.
Rep. Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) said it makes sense to wait until the report is concluded before allocating funding.
“We want to makes sure that all the providers are moved forward, not only a carved-out fraction,” Townsend said.
Rep. Matthew Trieber (D-Bellows Falls) noted there is plenty of time for the legislature to retroactively increase such payments next year with a budget adjustment.
A number of Republicans predicted that the bill would hurt the state’s economy, not boost it as supporters claimed.
Rep. James Gregoire (R-Fairfield), a convenience store owner, said he was insulted by the suggestion that businesses didn’t care enough to pay workers sufficiently.
He stressed that “mom and pop” stores like his pay workers as much as they can afford, and he worried that forcing them to pay more could imperil them further.
“You will hurt business with this, but you will also hurt people,” Gregoire said.
To address such concerns, the bill contains a “pause button” that would skip the rapid minimum wage increases if the state’s economy goes into a recession.
Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) proposed an amendment to pause the increase should the unemployment rate exceed 5 percent. She also proposed pausing any increases for two years on the theory that businesses needed time to absorb previous minimum wage increases.
Browning said she worried raising the minimum wage “too much, too fast” would lead to job losses or slower hiring.
“The last thing you want to do is hurt the people you’re trying to help,” Browning said.
Her amendments failed.
Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs) offered an amendment to reinstate the original timeline of getting the minimum wage to $15 by 2024. That amendment also failed.