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With prospects dim for federal action on minimum wage, advocates, opponents look to states

WASHINGTON — The Senate could vote on a wage hike this month, but if recent political history is a guide, action is more likely in St. Paul than Washington.

Congressional Democrats, including Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, are making a concerted push for a higher federal minimum wage, but opposition in the GOP-dominated House may spell doom for the measure.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

This is one in a series of articles funded by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate could take up a Democrat-backed bill to raise the federal minimum wage before February is out. But, given Republican opposition to the measure in the Senate and GOP-controlled House, the real battle over the minimum wage appears most likely to occur in state legislatures — including Minnesota’s — and during elections this fall.

Congressional Democrats — and President Obama — have made it known they’d like a minimum wage hike this session. But Republicans have resisted, making any attempt to get a minimum wage increase through the U.S. House contingent on the majority party completely changing course.

So those looking to raise the wage, from the president on down, have instead looked to the states, while those against a hike have girded themselves for a fight.

Renewed focus for Democrats

Congress has raised the federal minimum wage 22 times since enacting the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, according to the Congressional Research Service. But it’s done so infrequently of late: Lawmakers last passed a minimum wage increase in 2007, and it won bipartisan support only because it was tacked onto a bill funding the Iraq War. Before that, the wage last went up in 1996.

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About 3.6 million Americans earn the minimum wage (currently $7.25) or below, according to CRS numbers. The rate cuts across demographic boundaries: a quarter of those earners are teenagers; two-thirds are women (an important voting bloc, and one Democrats are looking to appeal to in this debate); one-third are full-time workers, and more than 70 percent of them are high school graduates.

Obama called for a minimum wage increase in his State of the Union address last year, but it went nowhere in Congress. Both he and congressional Democrats have made it a higher priority this year — Obama signed an executive order raising the wage for future federal subcontracted workers, he devoted both a section of his State of the Union and this Saturday’s weekly address to the issue, and Sen. Harry Reid has said the Senate would take up a $10.10 wage bill before the end of the month.

Many Democrats say the focus is overdue. Adjusted for inflation, $7.25 rate is worth less than the minimum wage under Ronald Reagan, and they say raising it now would not only increase workers’ earnings and help bolster the country’s lowest-paid workers, but help lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

Rep. Betty McCollum

“I represent a lot of those constituents who show up and go to work and are trying to support a family on a minimum wage, as we’re seeing profits increase in businesses,” Rep. Betty McCollum said after the State of the Union last month. “It’s just wrong.”

Republicans question benefits

Republicans and conservatives say the pros don’t outweigh the cons. Raising the minimum wage will drive up the cost of doing business, they worry, and hurt companies’ ability to hire new workers. They contend that the anti-poverty benefits are overblown, and that a higher base pay might push businesses to cut hours. Young workers could be hit especially hard if businesses choose to cut back due to higher costs.

Rep. Erik Paulsen

“It’s a training wage essentially,” Rep. Erik Paulsen said after the State of the Union. “Just raising the minimum wage will have negative effects for a lot of folks too, especially employers, and we don’t want to have people losing their jobs. So that’s a double-edged swords in many respects.”

After Obama highlighted Twin Cities-based Punch Pizza’s decision to raise its wages in his State of the Union speech, Kim Crockett, the Chief Operating Officer at the Center for the American Experiment, wrote a blog post arguing new small businesses might struggle to gain traction if they were required to pay their workers a higher wage at the onset.

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“I hope that the measure fails,” she said in an interview. “What we need in Minnesota is growth, not more government in the markets, pure and simple.”

Republicans voted down a hike last year

Most Minnesota Democrats have voiced support for raising the minimum wage, and both Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have signaled they’ll back it if it comes to the Senate floor this month.

The bill’s passage there is not guaranteed: At least five Republicans will need to vote to end debate on the bill, a procedural hurdle that could not only spell the end of the minimum wage debate in the Senate but in Washington as well.

But even if the Senate gets the votes to pass a wage hike, it’s highly unlikely the House will take it up. Republicans are locked in against it, and Speaker John Boehner has said he’s unlikely to let a minimum wage bill get to the floor this year, even though Democrats have said they’ll attempt long-shot procedural tricks to try forcing his hand.

Rep. John Kline

They’ve done that before, but to no avail: Last March, Democrats tried attaching a $10.10 minimum wage to a Republican-backed jobs training bill. Minnesota Rep. John Kline led the short floor debate against the amendment, calling it a “proposal that may hurt workers and job creators and increase unemployment.” He said the better way to grow jobs is to “get federal spending under control and government out of the way of the nation’s job creators.”

Republicans unanimously opposed the provision.

State Legislature the focus

At this point, action on raising the minimum wage is confined to the states, rather than the federal government.

Five states — Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and California — have raised their minimum wages in the past year. Sensing a trend, Obama used his State of the Union to appeal to “every mayor, governor, state legislator in America” to take the lead and raise their wages without waiting for Congress.

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Democrats in the Minnesota House and Senate passed competing minimum wage bills last year, but couldn’t agree on the dollar amount at which to set the rate. The Raise the Wage Coalition, a group of dozens of advocacy groups, is planning to blitz the state Capitol this spring to push legislators toward an agreement.

Minimum Wage: Too low or too costly?Peggy Flanagan, the group’s co-chair, said advocates “appreciate the champions that we have in this state at the federal level,” but that the grassroots’ focus is on St. Paul for now.

“We can’t depend on Washington to get this done for us,” she said. “It’ll be a beautiful thing if we could increase the federal minimum wage, but in the meantime, we’ve got 137,000 kids that will benefit from increasing the minimum wage, and we’ve got to work for them.”

DFL leaders say they’ll reconcile their differences this session, but John Cooney, the Minnesota director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said he doesn’t think lawmakers will have time, given their condensed calendar this year. Instead, he predicts the minimum wage debate bleeds over into campaign season.

“It’s a discussion that needs to take place, and folks need to understand the benefits and the costs to raising the minimum wage,” he said. “It’s not a discussion that’s bad to have.”

Potent political issue?

When polled on raising the wage, the public usually solidly favors raising the rate, a fact not lost on Democrats and progressive groups.

The national group Americans United for Change has released pro-minimum wage polling in a handful of states with Republican senators, hoping to push them toward supporting legislation that might come up this session.

Group spokeswoman Lauren Weiner said that if Congress doesn’t raise the wage, it would be a “winning issue” for Democrats heading into this fall’s elections.

“I think you will see a larger outcry than a lot of issues because this is tangible for a lot of people,” she said. “Inaction on this, in a lot of ways, could be really detrimental to Republicans.”

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DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said he expects Minnesota voters to pay enough attention to the minimum wage debate at the Legislature that it could hurt Republicans running for federal office.

“I believe that there will be action at the state Legislature,” he said. “If Congress doesn’t act on a federal minimum wage increase, I think we’ll still see the benefits for low-wage workers in this state.”

Cooney, though, said he thinks it will play a small role given everything else voters will hear this cycle.

“I have a hard time seeing it becoming an issue that helps Democrats overcome the damage of MNsure, and whatever the Republican proposals are going to be,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a marginal issue … if you try and measure how it affects the election.”

Advocates and politicos on both sides of the debate see the minimum wage as something of a political football. Martin said Republicans are set to block a wage increase to prevent giving Obama and Democrats a win in an election year; conservatives see a messaging battle on the horizon, and a deck stacked against Republicans.

“They’re setting up conservatives to look like bad guys,” Crockett said. “That’s what’s going on, very clearly. And I feel really sorry for elected officials who have a thoughtful point of view on this, because if they open their mouths, they’re hosed. … How do they win on this without looking cold-hearted?”

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry