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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lawmakers hear a bill that would raise the state's minimum wage

HELENA — The House Business and Labor Committee heard testimony Thursday on a bill that would raise the Montana minimum wage to $11.39 an hour.

Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Billings, sponsored House Bill 201. He tried to pass similar legislation last session, but it was tabled and then died. He says the $11.39 figure comes from a compromise from last session adjusted for inflation.

“The cost of living increases 14%, and you get less than a 14% raise — you got a pay cut,” Kortum said.

Seven proponents testified in support of the bill, saying that increasing the minimum wage will not only help roughly 70,000 employees who would get a raise, but the economy of Montana as a whole. Amanda Frickle spoke for the bill for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

“Workers who make a minimum wage salary in this state are merely hovering above the federal poverty line,” Frickle said.

There were four opponents of the bill, including Dave Galt, a representative from the Montana Chamber of Commerce, who said Montana’s minimum wage had already risen 70 cents just last year, making the bill unnecessary. He also said raising the minimum wage could negatively affect the economy.

Brad Griffin is the Executive Director of the Restaurant Association of Montana. He says that the majority of minimum wage workers in the state also earn tips. He spoke as an opponent of the bill.

“I agree you — you can't live off minimum wage. Totally agree with that. But the reason they work for minimum wage is because they also make considerable tips,” Griffin said.

Amy Watson, the state economist with the Department of Labor and Industry, spoke as an informational witness. She said the potential raise in minimum wage would impact 14.6% of Montana’s job market. Other states like Washington have enacted similar wage raises and Watson said that while the costs of some goods did rise to compensate for labor costs in those states, other businesses were able to absorb the cost and continue selling their goods at the same price.

“Essentially it was mixed. So some of those costs were passed on to the consumer and some of them were able to be absorbed by the business,” Watson said.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.

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