In the typical state-level minimum wage fight, Democratic politicians tend to support raising the wage and Republicans tend to oppose it. But politics in Alaska are rarely typical, and over the weekend they got downright strange.
On Sunday night, Alaska's House passed a law hiking the state's minimum wage from $7.75 per hour to $10. The final margin of victory was a razor-thin 21-19, with all but two of the chamber's Democratic members voting against. The 21 votes in favor all came from Republicans.
So what happened to reverse the usual political dynamic in Alaska? Nothing, according to House Democrats. They still want to raise the minimum wage in Alaska, but they want to do it through a ballot initiative, which would raise the minimum wage to $9.75. The initiative is already headed for the August primary ballot, and Alaska Democrats say the Republicans are just trying to preempt it with a wage hike of their own.
“It’s a strange vote, and it’s going to be difficult to justify to my voters,” said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, during the floor vote. “I simply think this is a disingenuous piece of legislation."
Democrats claim Republicans only want to approve the minimum wage hike in the short run so they can kill it in the long run. Laws approved by popular referendum can't be repealed by an act of the legislature for at least two years after their passage; but acts of the legislature can be repealed at will. Gara and his Democratic colleagues believe that Alaska Republicans are trying to get a $10 minimum wage passed now so that voters won't feel the need to approve a $9.75 wage in August. Then, once the ballot initiative goes down, the Republican-controlled legislature will be able to repeal their own law at their leisure.
Republicans replied that there's no good reason to hold off on raising the minimum wage until August.
"I do not know who benefits from waiting to help working Alaskans, but it sure isn't those hard working Alaskans,” said Rep. Mia Costello of Anchorage. Supporters of the bill produced a signed letter of intent saying they would not revisit the bill for at least two years. That letter, unlike the rules surrounding the repeal of ballot initiatives, would not be legally binding.
The minimum wage proposal will now head to the State Senate.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said that Democrats unanimously voted against the bill.