DeLeo proposes raising minimum wage to $10.50, brightening prospects of a boost

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo today proposed incrementally raising the state’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10.50 an hour by the middle of 2016, brightening prospects for a wage hike to become law this year.

At a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event, the powerful Winthrop Democrat outlined his chamber’s plan for boosting the state’s hourly wage floor: $9 at the beginning of July this year, $10 in 2015, and $10.50 in 2016.

DeLeo also proposed raising the minimum wage for tipped workers from its current level of $2.63 an hour to $3.75 by 2016.

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The push comes as President Obama has pressed for a federal minimum wage hike and called on state officials to boost their minimum wages.

DeLeo’s proposal sets up weeks or months of wrangling with the state Senate. That chamber passed a larger wage hike late last year, but the bill languished as the House declined to take up the issue. Now, however, legislators and political observers say they are bullish that compromise legislation will reach the desk of Governor Deval Patrick, who strongly supports a wage boost, before the chambers recess this summer.

State Representative Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat, said he was optimistic about a hike becoming law in coming months “in part because all the leadership voices are singing from the same page and also because it’s the right thing to do for the economy.”

He added that there was widespread support for such a measure among his colleagues.

“The consensus is in all three branches that they’re going to take action on the measure and there’s going to be a compromise reached,” said former state Senate president Robert E. Travaglini. He said he expected “they will reach an accord, and they will take action before the session ends.”

In his remarks, DeLeo also outlined a package of reforms to the state’s unemployment insurance program that he said would lower the tax burden on most employers, shield them from short-term fluctuations in employment trends, and close “loopholes” in the system for certain public sector employees.

“It is a careful balancing act and one that involves improving conditions for workers at the bottom of our wage scale, while creating a climate that permits businesses to create jobs,” DeLeo said in a speech before people from banks, health insurers, law firms, and lawmakers at The Seaport Hotel.

The Senate measure, passed in November, would incrementally raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour by the middle of 2016 and connect subsequent hikes to inflation. It would boost the tipped minimum wage to half of the regular minimum wage.

DeLeo said his minimum wage proposal would not tie future increases to inflation.

“They will not be indexed to any economic factors,” he said.

Speaking to reporters after the event, DeLeo said his team came to the $10.50 figure after reviewing the Senate legislation, economic factors and a proposed ballot measure on the issue. He called a hike to that level by 2016 “a fair wage.”

The speaker added that “businesses, for the most part, were against tying it to economic factors” such as inflation.

Raising the minimum wage has been a top priority for liberal activists in Massachusetts as well a key issue for Democrats nationally.

Obama pressed for a federal minimum wage hike in his January State of the Union address.

On Thursday afternoon, Patrick welcomed DeLeo’s proposals, calling them “a really positive step forward on both fronts.”

He did not say whether he will back DeLeo’s plan for a $10.50 wage or the Senate bill to lift it to $11, because he wants to help them broker an agreement. “I’m going to do what I can to help them get to yes,” he said in an appearance on WGBH-FM.

The governor pointed out that the two sides do not appear to be very far apart. “If the House really does come in at $10.50, there’s not that much difference between the two numbers,” he said.

With support for a higher minimum wage from DeLeo, Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray, political observers said it was likely Massachusetts would see a law soon.

David Falcone, a former top aide to Murray, now a consultant at the public relations firm Denterlein, cautioned that there were significant complexities in hammering out a compromise on unemployment reform and the minimum wage, particularly with concerns from the business community.

But, he said, “it’s certainly more likely to get done with the legislative and executive branches rowing in the same direction.”

At the speech, DeLeo also called for expanding local convention center and hotel space. He said he supported legislation that would green light a significant expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and was greeted with applause from the audience.