On the trail: Minimum wage boost suffers setbacks in Concord and Washington

For the Monitor
Published: 3/19/2021 5:57:18 PM

Efforts to raise both the federal and New Hampshire’s minimum wage are suffering setbacks.

Yet, while Republicans in Concord and the nation’s capital are uniformly opposed to minimum wage hikes, the GOP was joined by some Democrats – including New Hampshire’s two U.S. senators in opposing an increase to the federal minimum.

Since 2011, when New Hampshire repealed its own minimum wage, the Granite State has relied on the federal minimum wage. In all, 21 states use the federal minimum wage – which has not increased from $7.25 since 2009 – as their own.

Boosting the federal figure, which would have increased wages in New Hampshire too, was in the original massive $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill passed along party lines in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives. However, it was taken out in the Senate. It was a defeat for progressives as well as for President Joe Biden, whose campaign for president included a pledge to raise the federal minimum wage.

Biden had aimed to include the boost to $15 per hour in his economic stimulus package. But the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the minimum wage hike couldn’t remain in the measure that was passed by reconciliation, a move the Senate Democrats used to advance the bill with a simple majority vote rather than the normal 60 votes needed to pass legislation.

The Senate is split 50/50 between the two parties, with the Democrats holding a razor-thin majority due to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, through her parliamentary role as president of the Senate.

A push by Senate Budget Committee chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, to waive the Senate parliamentarian’s objection and add the $15 minimum wage hike to the Senate bill was defeated.

Eight members of the Democrats’ coalition – including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire - joined all 50 Republicans in the chamber in voting against the Sanders amendment.

Proponents of raising the state minimum wage also suffered a defeat this week.

In Concord, the GOP majority in the New Hampshire Senate rejected by a party-line 14-10 vote a Democratic-sponsored bill (Senate Bill 136) that would have upped the state’s minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $10 starting next year and to $12 by Jan. 1, 2024.

Republicans argued that the bill would hurt businesses and cost jobs.

“Small to midsize businesses would be hurt the most because they would be forced to raise their prices to make up for additional labor costs and likely lay off employees,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said following the vote.

“As our economy continues to get stronger as we come out of the pandemic, we want to create more job opportunities for Granite Staters, not less,” the longtime Republican lawmaker from Wolfeboro noted.

Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy, the measure’s main sponsor, said bill’s defeat signals that New Hampshire doesn’t care about its workers.

“People want to work, and they want to be able to provide for their families,” the Democrat from Manchester said. “Sadly today’s vote represented a missed opportunity to help them do just that.”

A Democratic-sponsored bill in the state House of Representatives (House Bill 517), which would have also boosted New Hampshire’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by the beginning of 2024, was sidetracked for the rest of this year’s legislative session.

In Washington, Hassan and Shaheen both insisted they support a higher minimum wage, despite their vote.

Hassan is the only one of the four senators from New Hampshire and Maine who is up for re-election next year. Anger among Democrats over her minimum wage vote could transform into a primary challenge or prove costly in a general election.

“People who work 40 hours a week should be able to get by and shouldn’t be living at or below the poverty level,” Hassan said in a statement to the Monitor.

“I’ve long supported raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, and I’m open to $15 an hour. We need a path forward that is appropriate for workers and small businesses – including restaurants that have been particularly hard hit – and that could actually pass,” the first-term senator and former two-term governor explained.

Shaheen, the first woman elected both governor and senator in the nation’s history, said $15 an hour is the right figure, with conditions.

“Every American deserves a living wage. I support raising the minimum wage to $15 with safeguards in place for small businesses and restaurants that have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic,” she said

Shaheen added that “Congress must act meaningfully to ensure small businesses have the support necessary to meet that goal.”

But Shaheen, who was re-elected last November to a third six-year term in the Senate, emphasized that raising the minimum wage should be dealt with separately from the COVID relief package.

Push for no-excuseabsentee voting nixed

The New Hampshire Senate on Thursday also shot down a Democratic bill to make no-excuse absentee balloting and registration permanent in a 14-10 party-line vote.

New Hampshire, along with many other states across the nation, last year relaxed restrictions on voting by absentee ballot due to health concerns over voting in-person at polling stations amid the coronavirus pandemic. The led to a surge in absentee voting in New Hampshire and across the country.

Thirty-two percent of all votes cast in the Granite State in November’s election were by absentee ballot. Both the overall voter turnout and the percentage who cast absentee ballots shattered records.

“Now that we experienced the largest election in our state’s history, and have accommodated all of these voters, why would we now go back and tell them that this process doesn’t make sense anymore?” Soucy argued.

But Republican state Sen. James Gray of Rochester – the chairman of the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee – emphasized that the state’s current law offers voters plenty of opportunities to cast an absentee ballot.

“The law right now is adequate,” Gray said. “Give me an example that we don’t cover that isn’t a person who is just is too lazy to go the poll on Election Day.”

Under current law, voters can cast an absentee ballot if they won’t be in the city or town where they reside on Election Day, or due to religious observance, a disability or illness, and employment commitments, including caregiving, during the entire period when the polls are open.

The GOP majority in the state House of Representatives Election Law Committee earlier this month voted along partisan lines to recommend that the full House kill two Democratic-sponsored bills that would also allow for the permanent use of “no-excuse” absentee voting in New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, earlier this month the Senate – in another 14-10 party-line vote – passed a bill that would require additional identification requirements for Granite Staters voting by absentee ballot. The measure’s now in the House.

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