JUNEAU (AP) -- Saying the Legislature has failed to act on the issue, Gov. Tony Knowles signed a petition Wednesday in support of a ballot initiative to raise Alaska's minimum wage.
''I'm proud to join the men and women of organized labor in taking this matter to the streets,'' Knowles said at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers meeting in Anchorage.
The AFL-CIO is sponsoring an initiative petition that would raise Alaska's minimum wage from $5.65 to $7.15 an hour and would require the wage to keep pace with the cost of living in the future. The group must collect about 29,000 signatures to get the measure on the 2002 election ballot.
Alaska's minimum wage currently is set at 50 cents more than the federal minimum wage, but is lower than the minimum wage in Washington, Oregon or California.
''The way it sits now, a single mother with two kids working full-time for minimum wage makes about 66 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three in Alaska,'' Knowles said.
The ballot initiative mirrors legislation Knowles introduced that received little attention during the legislative session that ended May 8. Rep. Pete Kott, R-Anchorage, and Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, also introduced minimum wage increase bills. Those bills, which did not include automatic increases for inflation, also made little progress.
House Labor and Commerce Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Anchorage, held several hearings on Kott's bill early in the session. Some committee members questioned then how many truly needy workers would benefit, saying they believed many minimum wage earners are teen-agers who still live with their parents.
According to Department of Labor and Workforce Development data from the last three months of 1998, roughly 14,500 Alaska workers earned between $5.65 and $6.50 per hour. The department could not provide definite answers on how many of those workers are actually at the minimum wage and how many are in their teens.
Sen. Davis argued it's not just young people making the minimum wage.
''There are married couples with children,'' she said.
Restaurant owners testified that a minimum wage increase could force them to reduce other benefits for employees and might lead to layoffs. Some restaurant owners advocated a tip credit that would allow employers to pay less than the minimum for those workers who receive tips. Knowles opposes a tip credit.
Murkowski said in February she planned to appoint a subcommittee to look at some of the issues raised in the full committee, but in late March she said that subcommittee had not met.
The bill did not move from the committee before the session adjourned May 8. Murkowski did not return calls left at her Anchorage and Juneau offices Wednesday.
The Senate Labor and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the minimum wage bills sponsored by Knowles and Davis about 10 days before the session ended, but did not move them. According to an aide in committee Chairman Randy Phillips' office, the Eagle River Republican is out of the country and unavailable for comment.
If the initiative's supporters collect enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot in 2002, the Legislature can keep it from going to voters by passing substantially similar legislation.
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