Yesterday’s Minimum Wage Fracas – What Was THAT About?

UPDATE, March 25: Forecast for minimum wage bill: mainly preposterous, with gusts reaching absurdity.

After last week’s scrapped takeoff, House Representative Tom Conroy announced today that the House will release its bill dealing with the state minimum wage and the unemployment insurance system very soon. The new House bill will add yet a third issue to the mix — workplace protections for domestic employees.

The Senate has already acted on the first two issues (minimum wage and unemployment), but it hasn’t acted on the workplace protections issue. The procedural result of the action the House is planning to take will, like the bill the House hoped to launch last week, “reset the process” and will require the Senate to act again on minimum wage and unemployment. But this time, the House will not need to go through the Labor Commmittee, because the workplace protections bill is no longer in that Committee. Instead it is in the House Ways and Means Commmittee and will apparently serve as the vehicle for the House to act on all three issues at once.

After charging that the Senate rather than the House is the true “obfuscatory body” here, Representative Conroy added that “this process issue should not get in the way of politics.”

OK, here’s another suggestion – how about not letting this political issue (of the sibling rivalry sort) get in the way of helping people?

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ORIGINAL POST, March 21

If you’re following the campaign to increase the state’s minimum wage, yesterday was something of a head-scratcher.

A quick recap – in November, the State Senate passed a bill that largely tracked the minimum wage increase proposal that is making its way to the statewide ballot in November. The Senate bill would increase the minimum wage to $11 over three years, increase the minimum wage for tipped workers to 50 percent of the regular minimum wage, and provide for automatic increases in the minimum wage in the future by tying the wage to the Consumer Price Index. In response, House of Representatives Speaker Bob DeLeo pronounced the Senate bill too unfriendly to the state’s business interests and proposed pairing any minimum wage increase with changes to the state’s unemployment insurance (UI) system to reduce those business costs. Many in the business community want to see those cost reductions come in the form of eligibility and benefits cuts to unemployed workers who file UI claims.

Yesterday began with a post to BlueMassGroup by House Labor Committee Chairman Tom Conroy introducing the House proposal. It would increase the minimum wage to $10.50 over three years, slightly less than the Senate proposal, and it would not make future increases automatic. The UI changes in the House bill would not have included any cuts to benefits or eligibility (as the employers were undoubtedly hoping), but instead would have reallocated the costs among employers, with employers whose workers used the UI system more often (the so-called “frequent fliers”) paying more than employers whose workers rarely used it. As it happens, the Senate passed a UI bill in February that took a very similar approach to reallocating the costs of the system.

So, in substance, it is fair to say that the Senate and the House were reasonably close on the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. The differences, one might think, could be worked out in the conference committee process.

But there was a big problem yesterday, and it was procedural, not substantive. The House wanted its bill to originate in the Labor Committee. That would have meant that the bill would then go to the House for passage and then over to the Senate. But what about the bills — both minimum wage and unemployment insurance — that the Senate has already passed? They are both sitting in the House awaiting action. If the House started the process over by having the Labor Committee act, then the Senate would have to schedule new debates and essentially re-do the work it has already done — a penalty for having acted first.

And that’s pretty much the point. House leadership hates it when the Senate goes first. Under the State Constitution and by tradition, the House goes first on any bills that raise tax revenue and on the annual budget. The House seems to feel that example should be followed in all cases, even in those cases where the deadline for the joint committees to have finished their work has passed. As it happens, that day was the day before yesterday. After the deadline has passed, a committee can take action only if both the House and Senate agree, and yesterday the Senate declined to let the Labor Committee do so.

Representative Conroy, understandably upset at losing the opportunity to move his bill forward, accused the Senate of pettiness. But from the Senate’s point of view, the problem is that the House so rarely goes first these days. All the committees, including the Labor Committee, include more House members (who number 160 in total) than Senate members (who number 40 in total), so the House completely controls the committee process. (You could make the argument that because Senators represent four times the number of people that House members represent, the committee membership really ought to be adjusted. But it hasn’t happened.)

So in order to preserve the Senate’s opportunity to act, they adopted Rule 19, which allows them to introduce and act on a bill that has not yet been through the committee process. The Senate used that rule to introduce and pass both its minimum wage and unemployment insurance legislation.

So what happens now? The Senate could agree to let the Labor Committee act, which would mean re-doing their work after the House has finished and postponing the final resolution of these issues. With only four months left in the legislative session and much, much more work to be done, one might wish for a simpler way out of this impasse, and fortunately one exists. The House can use the bills that the Senate has already passed as their vehicles for acting on minimum wage and unemployment insurance. We’ll see if — and when — they do.

2 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Minimum Wage Fracas – What Was THAT About?

  1. In Washington, Congress has routine ways of dealing with this issue, which happens all the time. They pass resolutions authorizing their clerks to link up two bills flowing in two different directions as if each branch acted on the other’s bill. That way they can go to conference on two bills that each originated in their branch – it’s as if each went first.

    • Wow – Congress is about the last place I would have thought to look for models of compromise – thanks. (How do they decide which branch passes its resolution first?)

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