Time is running out for lawmakers to prevent a prolonged ballot battle over raising the minimum wage and small businesses are looking to the Legislature to stop what could be a costly campaign.
Advocates for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour are charging ahead with the signature-gathering process needed to gain a slot on voters' ballots in November. Polling suggests most voters agree to raise the wage floor, and advocates are confident that they will win on their own terms if lawmakers fail to move a compromise bill.
"When we raise the minimum wage, it's good for workers, but it doesn't come at the cost of hurting businesses. It helps everyone by growing our economy from the bottom up," Andrew Farnitano from the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition said.
Still, large and small business owners would prefer that the Legislature cut a more favorable deal between them and the activists behind the wage hike to avoid the ballot question entirely.
"When you think of paying your people more, everybody wants to do the right thing," Massachusetts Restaurant Association president Bob Luz said. Luz said when you add up everything businesses have to pay, from wages to sick leave pay and insurance, small outfits like restaurants are getting squeezed by government mandates that favor workers.
"Small businesses are what drives Massachusetts and small businesses are perilously at risk if we do everything for everybody," Luz said.
The Legislature voted to raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour in 2014, but leading Democrats have been unwilling to go further since that hike went into effect.
That leaves it up to Rep. Paul Brodeur and Sen. Jason Lewis, the House and Senate chairmen of the Labor Committee, to get a bill done before the May 1 deadline to head off the ballot question.
"I'm not a prognosticator. I am one of many people in a room who's gonna do their damndest to try to get this all done. I don't know if it's going to happen," Brodeur said.
Lewis said that what is Important is that that stakeholders on both sides of the ballot questions are at the table with the Legislature and Baker Administration to work out a deal.
"The preference would be to have fewer rather than more ballot questions, and so it is certainly our desire to work to reach an agreement but there's no guarantees in life," Lewis said.
Gov. Charlie Baker won't say if he supports the wage increase, but he was honest when he told business owners that the Legislature will wait until the last possible minute to get a bill done.
"I don't know how many of you ever waited until 11:30 at night before you started working on a paper that was due at 7 o'clock in the morning.... But there's definitely this notion and this sense that a lot of the stuff that happens in the Legislature, especially a lot of the important stuff, it doesn't happen until the end,"
Baker told the business owners he think the ballot questions could do somethings he thinks are positive, but he worries about negative consequences for businesses. Baker later refused to answer how he would personally vote if the questions make it to the ballot.
Both sides are prepared to wage loud, expensive campaigns to sway voters between now and November, but that doesn't have to happen if lawmakers step up in the next few weeks.