David vs. Goliath battle shaping up on Portland minimum wage referendum



The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce plans to spend at least six figures in an attempt to defeat a local initiative to increase the minimum wage put forward by the Portland Green Independent Committee, according to Chamber CEO Chris Hall.

“A successful [campaign] will have to have six digits at the very least,” said Hall. “They’ve done a lot of good grassroots work on the no side.”

The business group is forming a Political Action Committee and has hired consultant Toby McGrath to run their campaign. McGrath served as Deputy Chief of Staff for U.S. Senator Angus King before joining law and government relations firm Drummond Woodsum earlier this year.

The Portland Greens won’t be spending anywhere near that kind of money (they haven’t yet hit the $1,500 disclosure threshold, despite working on the issue for months) and Committee Chair (and Portland mayoral candidate) Tom MacMillan used similar words to describe the different strengths of the two campaigns.

“I’m sure they’ll be spending a huge amount to kill it with lies and fear mongering,” said MacMillan. “We are planning a grassroots campaign. We know the issue is extremely popular and we think that if voters turn out on November 3rd, we will see victory.”

Hall insists that the Chamber’s campaign won’t be based on lies, or even on attacking minimum wage increases in general, but will make the argument that the $15 proposal, which would be fully implemented for large employers by 2017 and for small employers by 2019, is too much of a jump.

“The truth of the matter is if you went out and asked business owners if $7.50 was a reasonable wage, most would say ‘no, it’s not,'” said Hall. “But with $10.10 on January first, dropping $15 into the mix is just too far, too fast. We’re going to take time for the labor market to adjust. We don’t want to push a second without knowing the consequences of first.”

The municipal ordinance, passed in its final form earlier this month, is a separate measure from the Greens’ initiative. It will increase the minimum wage in Portland to $10.10 in 2016, to $10.68 in 2017, and then automatically increase the wage along with the cost of living. The ordinance as passed does not increase the base wage for tipped workers. The Greens’ referendum would raise the tipped wage to $11.25 when fully implemented.

“We’re already on that path with the city ordinance. MPA is working to set the state on that path. So, we’re going to deal with it. We’re not looking to fight on that. What we are looking to fight is $15 right away,” said Hall.

[The Maine People’s Alliance, for which I work, is part of a coalition that has launched a citizen initiative to incrementally increase the statewide minimum wage to $12 by 2020.]

The Chamber’s “too far, too fast” claims will likely have to rely heavily on anecdotes. There is a strong scientific consensus that previous modest minimum wage increases in jurisdictions across the country have not caused job losses or negative economic effects. While increases to the $15-an-hour level have not been implemented widely and are therefore less studied, initial indications are positive.

According to the Alliance for a Just Society, a living wage in Maine for a single adult with no children is $15.82 an hour.

The Portland Chamber may not be the only group spending to oppose the minimum wage referendum in the run-up to the election this November. Multiple Portland residents have reported receiving survey calls, sponsored by an unknown group, testing messages for and against the initiative. The poll, for which Hall says the Chamber was not responsible, was fifteen minutes long and conducted by live operators. Similar surveys regularly cost tens of thousands of dollars to conduct.

The anonymous poll tested some harsher language against increasing the minimum wage, including some outright lies. It referenced a discredited report from a conservative think tank claiming that the recent minimum wage increase to $11 an hour in Seattle (on its way to $15 over the next few years) had already cost the city 1,300 restaurant jobs. The report had a number of methodological flaws, a fact that was well-illustrated when the data the report relied on was updated last month, changing the outlook to a 3,700-job increase in restaurant employment.

The vote in Portland this November is likely to be close. A recent poll of likely city voters released by MPA found 48% in favor of the initiative and 40% opposed. That’s a statistically significant lead, but below 50% is a dangerous place for any referendum to be, especially with such well-heeled interests aligned against it.

“We are confident that Portland voters will vote for a living wage in November,” said Macmillan, whose group has previously released polling showing 55% of voters in favor of the increase to $15. “The question for us are around turnout and getting the less-likely voters, especially those students and working poor voters who don’t tend vote in off-year elections to come to the polls.”

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.