Last week, the Maine Democratic Socialists of America rushed to file paperwork with the City of Portland that set in motion the process to get a series of referendum questions on the ballot this November. Although it is still several months before voters will go to the polls, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin explained that November ballot initiatives are typically filed with the city by April, meaning this is truly being done at the last minute.
Among the initiatives put forward are acts to raise the city minimum wage to $18 an hour and eliminate the tipped wage, and cap the total number of passengers allowed to disembark from cruise ships on a given day to just 1,000 people. Also proposed are restrictions on short-term rentals and a slate of reforms aimed at affecting the behavior of Portland landlords.
Led by the Portland Chamber of Commerce, business leaders in the city are vehemently opposing these measures. Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Chamber, vowed to take action. “We plan to work with a broad group of community leaders to stand up against these proposals that would jeopardize everything that makes up the heart of Portland,” she said.
Tourism is one of Maine’s largest industries, supporting 143,000 jobs and bringing in over $14 billion in 2021. Although the industry bounced back remarkably well from the pandemic-related setbacks of 2020, labor challenges are believed to have hindered progress. According to Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron, “visitation and spending would have been higher if we had the workforce to accommodate it.”
It has been demonstrated that raising the minimum wage can force businesses to adjust their employees’ schedules such that fewer people are eligible to receive benefits in order to cut costs. Studies have also shown that minimum wage increases are linked to decreased employment and permanent business closures.
Implementing an $18 minimum wage, which would represent nearly a 40% increase over the city’s current standard, would end up forcing many Portland businesses to make a number of painful decisions at a time when they should be able to focus on rebounding from their pandemic-era struggles.
The cruise ship industry in particular plays a critical role in bolstering and sustaining summer tourism in Maine. A 2018 survey found that, when combined with indirect spending, cruise ship passengers had an economic impact of approximately $33 million. Johnny DiMillo, the co-owner and co-manager of DiMillo’s on the Water, has called the traffic generated from cruise ships a “godsend,” explaining that it gives them 30 to 40 extra days of business, allowing them to survive the slower winter months.
Limiting the aggregate number of passengers allowed to disembark on a daily basis may cause cruise liners to second-guess their relationship with the City of Portland. The impact this could have on the locally-owned businesses that are so integral to both Portland and the State of Maine, and rely on the traffic generated by cruise ships, could prove to be ruinous.
After having already lost so many businesses to pandemic-related difficulties, it is worth considering whether now is the time to risk placing further strain on those that have managed to survive up until now.