BARBARA HOWARD: Massachusetts is looking at raising its $11 an hour minimum wage. State lawmakers are considering an increase, and, if they fail to act, the issue could go to the voters. WGBH State House reporter Mike Deehan joins us from Beacon Hill as legislators begin a debate over how much lower wage workers should earn. Hi, Mike.

MIKE DEEHAN: Good afternoon, Barbara.

HOWARD: So you've been covering a hearing on raising the minimum wage today. What exactly are the lawmakers considering?

DEEHAN: The bill before the Labor and Workforce Development Committee would incrementally increase the minimum amount workers here can be paid from the current $11 an hour up to $15 an hour by 2021.

HOWARD: Well that's a pretty significant jump. Why such a big increase?

DEEHAN: Economists backing the increase say that $15 an hour is really what it would take to elevate the poorest workers into more economic security. They've argued that smaller increases over that time period don't keep up with the cost of living and the cost of housing. So the pay hikes don't have the impact for the lower class that they were intended to have. A rep. —  Dan Donahue from Worcester — is the lead House sponsor of the bill.


"We need to have a living wage and it's time for the legislature to step up. It's time for us to come together and find a way to get to $15 an hour at the bare minimum and make sure that everyone can provide for their families, have a safe pathway to the middle class and make sure they’re [stable] in our economy."

HOWARD: OK, now business interests and employers opposed the last increase the state passed back in 2014. So what are they saying these days?

DEEHAN: Business leaders representing retail stores, supermarkets, restaurants and other low wage employers are urging the lawmakers to be cautious when considering this. These opponents are saying that a $15 minimum wage would lead to higher prices for consumers, and it could put small businesses out of business entirely. But it's important to note here that some business groups, mostly in sectors that already pay above the minimum, like tech and some other higher end employers, are supportive of the increase.

HOWARD: Well, the hearing today, it was kind of a preview of something that could end up on the 2018 ballot as a referendum. Now, do you think voters are likely to decide this one themselves?

DEEHAN: The coalition behind the wage increase is backed by some of the big guns of organized labor, like the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Service Employees International Union, the SEIU. They're launching this as kind of a two-pronged attack. The first is this bill, and they hope they can get through the legislature to have them vote on it this session. But if the legislature fails to take it up, they're ready to mount a ballot question campaign for 2018.

HOWARD: Well, polls have shown that voters do favor a higher minimum wage. So what's stopping supporters from just waiting until 2018?

DEEHAN: Ballot campaigns can be extremely expensive, especially when you're up against the Walmarts and McDonald's of the world — not that labor also doesn't have pretty deep coffers. So the legislature now has a chance to make a deal with both sides to prevent that from going forward. Otherwise, you know, get ready for a fight next year with ads and the whole — everything that ballot campaigns that we've seen in the past [have done], but maybe even more so.

HOWARD: OK, thanks so much for joining us, Mike.

DEEHAN: You're welcome.

HOWARD: That's WGBH State House reporter Mike Deehan, checking in from Beacon Hill.