Dems divided on minimum wage strategy

Democratic pragmatists are unhappy with Democratic idealists, believing that the latter group’s passion could cost the party next November.

At issue is a progressive push to raise the state’s minimum wage. The state Senate last month voted to boost the floor rate to $11 by 2016 and index future increases to inflation. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, under pressure from unions and progressive activists, has said his chamber will address the measure after the new year.

And, lurking in the wings, is a petition headed for the Nov. 2014 ballot that would bolster the minimum wage by 50 cents less, still tied to inflation. Supporters of that effort are scheduled to rally and deliver more than 151,000 signatures to Beacon Hill on Tuesday, far more than required to clear the next hurdle in the ballot process.

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Some party strategists are hoping that the minimum wage effort makes it to the ballot. If lawmakers settle the debate at the State House, they reason, Democrats will be robbed of a winning economic issue. Placing a mandatory raise before voters, according to party insiders who spoke privately so as not to criticize fellow partisans, will help drive Democratic turnout.

Other Democratic consultants say it would be preferable for lawmakers rather than voters to adjudicate the matter, fearful that the ballot question could prove divisive, particularly in border districts where businesses have to worry about competition from other states.

But the party’s liberal base views askance the electoral calculations, wary of a Legislature they say has too often folded to media-savvy Republicans looking to depict Beacon Hill as a chronic spendthrift.

“The motivation for organizing this was to help low-wage earners, not about helping lawmakers at the ballot,” said Lew Finfer, a co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts, the coalition backing the wage boost. “Everybody looks at things through different lenses.”

Finfer said the group doesn’t necessarily have a preference for whether the wage rises through the legislation or the ballot, but called the second option a hedge against the prospect of the first not materializing.

“We will be trying to talk to legislators to pass a good bill, but it’s complicated because they may not,” he said of the House debate next month. The goal is to raise the wages fairly of the 1 million low-wage earners in the state. Legislation is one way it can happen, but there’s no guarantee it will happen or happen in a strong enough way.”

Businesses, meanwhile, claim that the state already burdens them with high operating costs, and want any rise in the minimum wage to be accompanied by changes to the unemployment insurance system.