Ballot Actions Only Sharpen the Divide on Minimum Wage

Posted November 12, 2014 at 3:55pm

The strong support voters showed in the midterm elections for increasing the minimum wage reinforced the idea of broad popular support for raising the wage floor and led Democrats to revive their calls for a higher federal minimum.

Advocates for higher minimum wages have been pressing a two-front battle, pushing for increases at both the state and national levels. And while they’ve had success at the state level, gains on Capitol Hill have been more elusive.

A bill from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, which would gradually raise the hourly minimum wage to $10.10 (S 2223) has gone nowhere in this Congress, despite the strong backing of the White House. Its hopes are slim in the next Congress, when Republicans assume control of both chambers.

That has left advocates both optimistic about their prospects in state capitals and somewhat resigned about their chances of seeing legislation in Washington, at least in the short term. But, they say, that doesn’t mean they’re about to take the pressure off Congress.

“There is something to be said about having a wage floor for all people,” said Anna Chu, director of the Middle-Out Economics project at the Center for American Progress. “This is an issue affecting the nation as a whole and Congress, with its mandate, needs to adjust this and fix it.”

Paul Sonn, general counsel for the National Employment Law Center, an advocacy group, sees the string of state increases as a hopeful sign that the pressure will someday become too much for Congress to bear. On Election Day, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas, Alaska and Illinois voted for higher minimum wages, though Illinois’ minimum wage ballot measure was not legally binding.

It’s not unusual for Capitol Hill to wait until states raise the minimum wage on their own to act, Sonn said. In 2007, the last time Congress raised the wage, the bipartisan deal didn’t come until 18 states and the District of Columbia had already taken action on their own.

“As more and more states show that the $7.25 federal wage is really wildly out of date, eventually there will be a point where there will be another bipartisan agreement to raise the wage,” Sonn said. “Eventually there’s a tipping point.”

Some 56 percent of American workers live in the 23 states (and the District of Columbia) where the minimum wage is higher than the federal minimum. Next year, Maryland, Nebraska and West Virginia will raise their minimum wages above the federal minimum. Most of those states have increases scheduled, either through ballot measures, new legislation or because their wage floors are pegged to inflation.

No state mandates a minimum wage as high as $10.10, but Hawaii and Maryland are set to hit that mark by 2018. Massachusetts will go to $11 in 2017 and Vermont will reach $10.50 in 2018.

In some cases, local governments and cities — where the cost of living tends to be higher — have gone beyond the state measures. Seattle, for instance, has voted to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour. San Francisco is also considering a $15 hourly wage, and Chicago is taking steps to boost its minimum to $13.

This week, a group of left-leaning organizations urged President Barack Obama to add to that pressure by doing more administratively for low-paid workers. Obama has already signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour, but the groups are calling on him to demand at least $15, which they say would be a living wage.

To the GOP, however, the Nov. 4 results demonstrate that questions about the minimum wage are best left to the states, where local officials and voters can take into account regional economics. Congress, Republicans say, should not get involved in what is, at heart, a state issue.

A senior GOP aide said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, “sees an urgent need for federal action on proposals to increase jobs, and an urgent need to oppose proposals that would harm jobs, like increasing the minimum wage, which is far better handled at the state level.”

“If you are going to raise it, it ought to be done at the state or local level,” said James Sherk, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “You’ve got radically different costs of living and labor market conditions in areas across the country.”

But nationwide polls have consistently shown support for raising the minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour and Obama did not hesitate to address the issue immediately after the GOP electoral sweep last week.

“In the five states where a minimum wage increase was on the ballot last night, voters went five for five to increase it,” he said in his postelection news conference. “That will give about 325,000 Americans a raise in states where Republican candidates prevailed. So that should give us new reason to get it done for everybody with a national increase in the minimum wage.”

Backers of higher minimum wage laws say their effort will gain more traction as both parties ramp up for the 2016 presidential election. New campaigns are forming to put minimum wage increases on state ballots in two years, Sonn said.

“That’s where the immediate action is,” he said. “But the White House, we expect, will keep pushing this. All of that will it front and center as we turn towards 2016.”