A bill is on the desk of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15, establish a paid family and medical leave program, and enshrine a permanent annual sales tax holiday. Also, if he signs it, several contentious November ballot questions would likely go away.
Baker said Monday his concerns about the bill are mostly technical in nature. The Republican governor told reporters a “bargain is a bargain” and he respects the months of negotiations that took place to produce the legislation that is intended to head-off several new ballot laws from being created.
In exchange for the bill, dubbed “the grand bargain,” the Retailers Association of Massachusetts agreed to withdraw its ballot question that would cut the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax to 5 percent and the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition is dropping the ballot questions on paid family and medical leave and increasing the minimum wage to $15
After the bill passed, Raise Up announced it would poll its 100 members to determine whether to proceed with the minimum wage question. The coalition of labor unions, left-leaning activists, and religious organizations cited concerns about the bill’s elimination of Sunday and holiday pay and the size of the wage hike for tipped workers.
The legislative version raises the minimum wage to $15 in five years, the ballot version does it in four years.
State Rep. Joe Wagner of Chicopee, a key member of the Democratic leadership on Beacon Hill, believed Raise Up would take the bird-in-hand.
" Legislatively we did what we were suppose to do and that was to negotiate out ballot questions that had they all gone forward and all passed would have put this Commonwealth and our standing economically in jeopardy," Wagner said.
The bill would create a program that would allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave. It would be funded through a payroll tax that would be split roughly 50-50 between employee and employer.
With an annual estimated cost of $750-$850 million, it is two-thirds less expensive than what the ballot question called for, according to Wagner. He said the retailers’ top priority was to stop having to pay employees time-and-a-half on Sundays and holidays -- a requirement in Massachusetts and one other state.
"There was give and take to the point where people on either side came as far as they were going to come, and at that point legislators took over the process and fashioned what we thought was a reasonable and balanced compromise," Wagner said.
The bill passed in the House and Senate by wide bipartisan majorities.
Republican State Senator Don Humason of Westfield was one of eight senators who cast a “No” vote.
" On the whole, I've never been a fan of government intrusion into business," said Humason. He said the market should set wages and benefits.
" Right now we are in the best economy the state has seen in years and we see companies raising people's salaries and benefits going up just to attract workers. It does not need to be done by government," said Humason.
He expects Baker will sign the bill.
"No question it is in the best interest to keep the questions off the ballot," said Humason.
If the activists hold up their part of the bargain and withdraw their initiative petitions, it will leave three questions on the November ballot in Massachusetts.
One asks voters to repeal a law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. There is a question that would limit the number of patients assigned to a nurse in the hospital. The third question would create a commission to advocate for changes in the U.S. Constitution regarding political spending and corporate personhood.