AUGUSTA, Maine -- Surrounded by the bill's supporters, Governor John Baldacci signed into law yesterday a measure to raise Maine's minimum wage to $7 an hour by October 2007, declaring that it will keep the state on a pace with the rest of New England.
The Democratic governor said the two-step increase will make Maine's minimum wage into a ''living wage" for those who struggle with one or more jobs to make ends meet.
The Legislature earlier this week gave its final approval to the bill, which nudges the minimum up from the current $6.50 an hour to $6.75 in October, and then by another quarter to $7 a year later. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, the same as it is in neighboring New Hampshire.
All of the rest of New England's states have higher minimums than the federal standard. Connecticut's is $7.40, while Vermont's is $7.25, Rhode Island's $7.10, and Massachusetts $6.75, according to the US Labor Department.
Maine's minimum in 2007 ''won't be the best in New England," Baldacci said, ''but we will be on a pace with the rest of New England."
The wage bill was debated passionately and lobbied intensely.
Supporters said Maine's lowest-paid workers need a boost to keep up with rising costs of fuel, food, and other everyday needs. Opponents said the wage hike would hurt small businesses, and by extension hurt workers by discouraging job creation.
Maine's minimum-wage earners received their most recent increase last fall under a bill signed into law two years ago.