HELENA Without any hoopla, backers of a proposal to raise Montana's minimum wage by $1 an hour say they have obtained more than enough signatures to put the measure on the November general election ballot.

As of Thursday, backers had collected the signatures of 42,128 voters or nearly twice as many as required to qualify Initiative 151, said Doug Mitchell, campaign manager for Raise Montana, the coalition of groups supporting the effort.

The proposal calls for raising Montana's minimum wage, now at $5.15 an hour, to $6.15 or the federal minimum wage, whichever is greater. In addition, if passed, I-151 would provide for an annual cost-of-living adjustment in the minimum wage.

Supporters of a higher minimum wage decided to take their effort to voters directly after legislative sessions have repeatedly defeated attempts to raise it.

"We are very pleased with where we are," Mitchell said of the signature-gathering on Friday. "Three hundred or so volunteers throughout Montana worked six months to gather these signatures. Now we'll let the election administrators and the secretary of state finish the job."

The volunteers were assisted by 10-12 paid signature gatherers, all of whom made more than the minimum wage and received other benefits such as workers' compensation insurance, Mitchell said.

To qualify, an initiative like I-151 needs the signatures of 22,308 registered voters, including at least 5 percent of the voters in at least 34 of the state House districts.

Mitchell said Raise Montana officials are confident they have qualified the measure in at least 40 districts, which he called the hardest part of putting one on the ballot.

Mitchell said backers collected 7,476 signatures in Missoula County, 6,533 in Yellowstone County, 6,271 in Lewis and Clark County, 3,989 in Cascade County, 2,992 in Silver Bow County, 2,498 in Gallatin County, 2,293 signatures in Ravalli County and 2,287 in Flathead County.

"It was truly a group effort in terms of folks who have pitched in, including small business people who understand that minimum wage workers don't send their money to Wall Street, they send it to Main Street Montana," Mitchell said.

No opposition has surfaced publicly yet, although trade associations representing retailers and restaurants and some local chambers of commerce opposed the attempt to raise the minimum wage at the 2005 Legislature.

A Lee Newspapers poll in December 2005 showed Montana favoring the initiative by a 74 to 17 percent margin, with 9 percent undecided, but there had been no campaigning by either side then.

The effort to raise the minimum wage here mirrors what is happening in some other states. Similar initiative efforts also are under way in Arizona, California, Nevada and Ohio, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

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