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HELENA - Senate Republicans successfully pushed forward a plan Friday that would essentially exempt tipped employees from parts of the inflation increases provided in the minimum wage initiative that voters approved in 2006.

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs sent the idea to the full Senate on a party-line vote of 6-5. But the same panel rejected a different plan to remove the automatic inflation increases for all minimum-wage employees.

Restaurant owners have been lobbying lawmakers for relief from the 2006 minimum-wage ballot initiative, which included automatic inflationary increases. The business owners say they are suffering after several increases that have kicked in since then, a problem they say is compounded by increases to the federal minimum wage law.

The bill would require that tips offset any future inflationary increases in the current minimum wage of $6.90 an hour, meaning most tipped employees would be locked in at that wage rate.

Restaurant servers testified against the bill, saying many of them barely make enough money to make ends meets.

Democrats argue that the bill is a punitive measure against some of the lowest-paid people. They also said it's unfair to restaurant customers who think tips go to the wait staff as a bonus for good service - not as a subsidy to base wages.

"This is the craziest thing I have ever heard of," Sen. Carolyn Squires, D-Missoula, told colleagues on the panel. "I bet none of you would let this happen to you if you were in the real world, let them take money from you."

Republicans said restaurants are suffering and will just lay off wait staffers if they don't get relief from future increases.

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"What we are really talking about here is whether a tipped employee has a job or not," said Sen. Roy Brown, R-Billings.

One Republican, Sen. Joe Balyeat of Bozeman, said he was supporting it in part because many servers don't share tips with busboys and other back kitchen staff members. He said it's not right that the servers earn a lot more.

But the committee was not willing to remove the automatic inflation increases for all minimum-wage employees.

Democrats offered harsh criticism that the bill would be a "slap in the face" to voters who overwhelmingly approved the idea in 2006. It was tabled on a 9-2 vote.

Copyright © 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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