Vermont Senate Offers Two-Year Minimum Wage Boost as 'Compromise' | Off Message

Vermont Senate Offers Two-Year Minimum Wage Boost as 'Compromise'


The Senate Economic Development Committee discusses the compromise minimum wage bill Tuesday.
  • The Senate Economic Development Committee discusses the compromise minimum wage bill Tuesday.
Legislative brinkmanship over a proposed minimum wage increase intensified Tuesday with the Senate offering a last-minute, two-year measure to raise wages to $12.50 by 2021.

Senators called it a compromise between the Senate’s original minimum wage bill, which would have hiked wages to $15 by 2024, and the House version, which would have tied increases to inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, times 2.25. The latter proposal would have resulted in a $15 wage a couple of years later.

“It seems to be, in my mind, a compromise to get some money in people’s pockets,” Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden).

The proposal passed the Senate 22-8 on Tuesday afternoon and was quickly sent to the House for consideration on Wednesday. Senate Republicans objected to the move, saying the last-minute measure was rushed and lacked thorough analysis.

“I feel blindsided by this,” Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) said.

Sirotkin countered that the increases to $11.50 by January 1, 2020 and $12.50 by January 1, 2021, were similar to those included in the version of the bill, S.23, previously passed by the Senate. Under that original plan, Vermont's minimum wage would have increased to $12.25 by 2021.

After the slightly steeper two-year increase proposed Tuesday, the minimum wage would revert to being pegged to inflation, as it is now. The state's current minimum wage is $10.78.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said she preferred the House-passed version, but she said she would send the Senate's latest iteration to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee for consideration Wednesday morning.

Johnson said she had concerns about the impact a sharper two-year increase would have on Medicaid service providers, such as nursing homes, as well on small businesses in rural parts of the state.

“The larger investment in a shorter period of time doesn’t address those two problems,” Johnson said.

Brock requested the bill be held for a day to allow a deeper analysis to take place, but he and his Republican colleagues were overruled.

Before it passed, the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, which Sirotkin chairs, briefly discussed the measure. It was there that Brock lamented that the process was “very rushed and with a limited amount of information.”

“I think we should have done it with the right information, rather than doing it on the back of an envelope in 15 minutes,” Brock said. “I think it’s bad public policy to do things like this on the spur of the moment.”

Complicating the matter was the fact that the minimum wage proposal was grafted onto a totally different House bill, H.351, regarding workers compensation.

Sirotkin apologized to Brock for not giving him a heads-up on the move, but his committee voted 4-1 to move it forward anyway.

Tuesday's action followed a Statehouse press conference held by activists seeking a more robust minimum wage increase and other safety net policies, such as paid family leave. The fate of the latter proposal in the Senate remains unclear.

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel blasted the House version of the minimum wage bill as a “copout.” She said later that she felt the pressure from her and activist groups such as Rights & Democracy had helped move the Senate compromise forward.

Even though the current projection is that, under the latest Senate bill, the minimum wage wouldn’t hit $15 until around 2030, Siegel said she supports it because it gives advocates the chance to fight another day.

“It allows us to keep working for $15 by 2024,” she said.

Charles Martin, a lobbyist for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, disputed the characterization of the bill as a compromise.

It’s only a compromise if one assumes the legislature won’t increase the minimum wage again for 11 years, he said.

“The proposal is more of a financial burden in the first two years of its implementation than any proposal that has been fielded this session related to the minimum wage,” Martin said.

Correction, 5/22/19: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the House-passed minimum wage plan.

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