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January 21. 2013 9:50PM

House bills propose raising NH minimum wage

CONCORD - The minimum wage for New Hampshire workers, bounced around like a political football depending on which party is in power, is back in play.

With Democrats in control of the state House of Representatives, two bills to raise the minimum wage are scheduled for hearings next week.

Both bills have to reestablish a minimum wage for New Hampshire, since the state Legislature under Republican leadership in 2011 overrode a veto by Gov. John Lynch to eliminate it. That means the federal minimum wage, set at $7.25 per hour, prevails in the Granite State.

HB 127, co-sponsored by Reps. Peter Sullivan, D-Manchester, and Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, would restore the state minimum wage and set the rate at $8. The bill also calls for the rate to be adjusted every two years based on inflation, subject to a vote of the Legislature.

HB 241, sponsored by Rep. Tim Robertson, D-Keene, would set the rate at $9.25 an hour as of Sept. 1. In both bills, tipped employees in the hospitality industry would have to be paid no less than 45 percent of the minimum wage, as is now the case.

Horrigan, who expects to testify on behalf of his bill at upcoming hearings, said it has symbolic as well as practical implications.

"I think wages in general are too low for working people," he said. "We seem to have accepted in the private sector that people doing the actual work, people at the bottom of the ladder, people out in the field, haven't had a pay raise for years. We sort of accept that as a fact of life, and now it's being used against public workers who have been attacked for having the audacity to ask for a pay raise."

The other five New England states have minimum wages higher than the federal standard. Vermont's minimum wage rose to $8.60, third-highest in the country, as of the new year. Rhode Island's rose from $7.40 to $7.75. Other New England minimum wages are Massachusetts, $8; Connecticut, $8.25; and Maine, $7.50.

Gov. John Lynch signed the state's first minimum wage into law in 2007, increasing it above the federal minimum at the time to $6.50, and then again to $7.25 in 2008, where it has stayed.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said both minimum wage bills have little chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"I don't think these two proposals, which would significantly put younger workers at a disadvantage in New Hampshire, are going to be looked upon too favorably in the Senate," he said.

Bradley said the last increase in the minimum wage in 2009 was followed by a spike in youth unemployment.

"So far, Democratic and Republican senators are talking about job growth as priority number one," he said. "So this will be a defining moment about whether we are for jobs or not."

Supporters of increasing the state's minimum wage point out that Vermont, with one of the highest rates in the nation, has had faster job growth and lower unemployment than New Hampshire in recent years. Republicans were able to prevail on the issue with their veto-proof majorities in the last session, but Horrigan said he is hoping for a different outcome this time.

With 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats in the state Senate, Horrigan said the proponents of a higher minimum wage only have to convince two GOP lawmakers. They're targeting two who voted against the right-to-work bill last year, Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, and Sen. David Boutin, R-Manchester.

"I know there will be a lot of pressure from the business lobby, but there may be some Republican senators who understand we need an economy that is fair for everyone," Horrigan said.

The New Hampshire Retail Merchants Association, for one, is girding for the fight. In his weekly update to NHRMA members, lobbyist Curtis J. Barry from the Dupont Group writes that "these bills have an intermediate chance to pass the House but if so are likely to fail in the Senate."

The group is rounding up speakers for hearings, scheduled for Jan. 29 before the House Labor Committee.

"We have to be cautious about what we do in the current economic environment, when jobs are still not easy to come by and new positions seem to be even scarcer," he said.

The Department of Labor estimates that about 5 percent of workers in New Hampshire are working for minimum wage.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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