Dire warnings don’t stop minimum wage bill from advancing

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By , VTDigger.org

A bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 over the next five years cleared another legislative hurdle in the House yesterday, but not before Republican representatives had a chance to tell their Democratic colleagues what a mistake they were making.

During more than an hour of debate before voting on the bill, S.40, members of the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs continued a debate that has divided the Statehouse along party lines — and led some to make do on minimum wage for a week.

Leading up to Tuesday’s vote, the committee took testimony from 78 experts, employers and employees, but were still far apart on what impact the bill would have on Vermonters.

Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, conveyed the message, also put forward by his fellow conservative colleagues, most bluntly.

“I support small business in the state of Vermont and I support senior citizens in the state of Vermont, and anybody who votes for this bill I don’t think supports that,” he said.

Smith said that all of the most convincing testimony he had heard on the bill was from people who said it was a bad idea, and he worried that it would hamper small business owners while raising the cost of living for older Vermonters.

Rep. Edward Read, I-Fayston, who was appointed to the legislature by Gov. Phil Scott, said he had “just about had it with this whole bill.”

“We have to look at the reality of this and we’re not, we are trying to save the world,” he told the committee. “It would be unconscionable for us to pass this, unconscionable.”

These final acts of opposition did not stop seven of the committee’s 12 members from voting to advance the bill to the House Appropriations Committee, which is expected to pass it on to the full House.

Rep. Mary Howard, D-Rutland, said she was offended by the suggestion that by voting yes, she was not doing what’s best for senior citizens, single-parent families and small business owners in her district.

“Any time I can help my constituents who sent me here to represent them, I am going to do so,” she said.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said that she planned to speak up against the bill, which she called an “incredible disservice to Vermont employers and employees,” when it reached the House floor.

The committee chair, Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, said that was “disappointing” given the tradition of committee members supporting the vote of fellow members or staying silent on the floor.

The bill has already been approved in the Senate, but would have to return there for final approval of changes made in the House before it is sent to Gov. Phil Scott.

And that could be where it stops, at least for now.

The governor has said he intends to veto the minimum wage bill because he believes it will damage the economy and ultimately cause employers to cut back on jobs as a response to rising wages.

Scott had already warned lawmakers that he did not support the minimum wage legislation and a number of other bills that he says would raise the cost of living or doing business in Vermont. He said that the fact those bills continued to move forward with little change made him confident that lawmakers would be back for a veto session this summer.

Head said she was convinced after listening to testimony from economists that the bill was not going to do the harm that Scott and others have warned about.

“I think that raising the wage will lift up Vermont workers and strengthen Vermont employers,” she said. “It will lead to stronger recruitment and retention of workers who need higher incomes in order to survive.”

Smith said he just couldn’t understand that point of view after listening to the same testimony.

“I feel like the Democrats in our committee are representing a whole bunch of different Vermonters than I am representing, and I don’t think it should be that way,” he said.

Head said she had spoken to “a great number of people in the House” who supported the bill, and would continue to talk with colleagues as the bill moved toward a floor vote. She said hoped Scott would change when it actually landed on his desk.

“That would sadden me great deal if in fact he vetoed it because I think there are large numbers of Vermonters who support this bill and for who this bill is really important,” she said. “And I hope that when it comes right down to it he would sign the bill.”

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