Coming as it did on April Fools Day, the recent news that Republicans and Democrats had been secretly negotiating a minimum wage increase seemed like a bad joke. Republicans are supposed to favor the free market; minimum wage laws are a classic example of government intervention in the marketplace. Every single time a state or the federal government raises the minimum wage, it’s an example of government increasing regulations on businesses. This should be exactly the sort of issue that unifies Republicans, rather than divide them.
Unfortunately, backroom deals that end up getting Democrats what they want aren’t uncommon for Republicans, in Augusta or in Washington. In this case, it is unclear that Republicans will get anything at all in exchange for completely caving on one of the Democrats’ top issues. It appears possible that some sort of change in child labor laws might be sought in exchange, but that is hardly an even trade.
Left-wing groups have, after all, made a minimum wage increase a major issue in recent years. They’ve used it to pummel Republican candidates at the state and federal levels in recent elections, both in Maine and nationwide. They’ve organized referendum campaigns to increase it, and they’ve used it to motivate their base. It has increasingly become a central issue for liberals around the nation.
Moreover, this is not an issue that can simply be taken off the table. No matter what the Legislature might decide now on the minimum wage, liberal groups will keep pressing for a higher rate. They’ll view any kind of compromise as a half-measure and move forward with their plans to take it to referendum. Even if Republicans agree to an increase, it will still be used as an attack against them in campaigns. Maine Democrats have already shown that they’re willing to attack Republicans for bipartisan agreements; that will happen here as well.
Historically, Maine Republicans have consistently argued that our economic policies put us at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis New Hampshire. That’s been a major part of the argument in favor of the governor’s proposed tax changes, for example. The minimum wage is part of that as well, however: New Hampshire sits at the federal rate while Maine’s is already higher. By giving in on the minimum wage, Maine Republicans are essentially tossing the New Hampshire argument out the window for the foreseeable future.
Republicans shouldn’t be giving in on a minimum wage increase at all, but if they do consider an increase, it should only be for major concessions from Democrats. The GOP should be demanding action on top issues — like welfare reform, eliminating the income tax or right to work. If the Democrats aren’t willing to consider that, these negotiations aren’t serious and should be halted immediately.
If these talks are to continue, they should be held out in the open, not behind closed doors. That way, all affected citizens (whether employees or business owners) — not just the ones who know the right people — can be involved in the talks. Voters have a right to know what is being discussed in Augusta and to be involved directly if they so choose.
The only way to guarantee that, yet again, Republicans don’t give in on an issue for no reason is to shine the light of transparency on these covert talks. If legislators truly believe these negotiations are worthwhile, they should have nothing to fear from having them in the public. They owe it to all of us, as citizens and as taxpayers, to conduct their business in the open. We owe it to ourselves to demand it.