Gov. Deval Patrick uses last State of the State speech to push for new minimum wage

Jan 23, 2014Boston Business Journal, Council in the News

NOTE: House Speaker Robert DeLeo says a bill will likely get done this year, but he wants to make sure it’s coupled with changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system to reduce its burden on businesses.

By Jon Chesto
Boston Business Journal

Gov. Deval Patrick’s final State of the Commonwealth speech focused on his legacy — the ways in which he’d like the state to be a better place than it was when he first took office seven years ago. Chief among those changes, not surprisingly, is an increase in the state’s minimum wage.

Patrick certainly mentioned a number of other goals for his final year — more rail service, expanded all-day kindergarten, unemployment insurance reform. And he ticked off a laundry list of accomplishments.

But it was his brief mention of the minimum wage increase that seemed to draw the loudest and longest applause last night. 

Patrick said a new minimum wage would bring some important relief to the working poor, and he essentially chided those who would stand in the way. “To those who are reluctant to raise the minimum wage,” he said, “I ask only that, before you resolve to oppose it, consider whether you could live with it.”

Patrick notably didn’t offer a numeric goal, or any other specifics with regard to the minimum wage. But he made it clear he wants lawmakers to act soon. The Senate in November passed a bill that would raise the state’s wage floor from $8 an hour to $11 an hour over three years. The House has yet to take it up. House Speaker Robert DeLeo says a bill will likely get done this year, but he wants to make sure it’s coupled with changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system to reduce its burden on businesses.

One of the biggest questions involves the state’s wage for tipped employees. The Senate included a provision that would increase the minimum wage that employers pay to tipped workers from $2.63 to $5.50, essentially making it half of the overall minimum wage. It’s unclear, though, how many of the senators who voted for it were aware that restaurant owners need to make up any shortfall if customers’ tips don’t get tipped workers’ wages above the $8 per hour floor anyway, or that Massachusetts already has the highest paid waitstaff in the country. Patrick didn’t mention the tipping issue in his speech.

Several business groups are concerned about an increase in the minimum wage, saying such a jump would pose a big setback to efforts aimed at making the state more competitive. A sharp wage increase, they say, could hurt the region’s economy by deterring employers from adding jobs. Republicans such as Sen. Bruce Tarr essentially told reporters the same thing last night, but Tarr’s party is vastly outnumbered in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Massachusetts is one of more than two dozen states where this issue is being debated. Here, the debate on Beacon Hill is being driven in part by the potential for a ballot question that could allow voters in November to decide whether to increase the minimum to $10.50 an hour. Passage of a bill would likely prevent the statewide referendum from taking place.

Patrick ended up sharing the night with his friend and ally, President Barack Obama, after a snowstorm caused Patrick to postpone his state-of-the-state speech to last night — the same night as Obama’s previously scheduled State of the Union address. Obama used his own speech to urge Congress to approve an increase in the federal minimum wage, and vowed to set an example by raising the requirement for federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.

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