This is one in a series of articles funded by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation.
Standing in front of several hundred supporters who want to increase the state’s minimum wage, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk pulled out his union card.
“This is my wallet, this is my union card,” the Iron Range Senate leader said to cheers in the Capitol rotunda at a rally on Tuesday, the first day of session. “We expect to have a very short timeline for which we get [the minimum wage increase] on the governor’s desk.”
The moment marked a notable shift in the minimum wage debate in Minnesota, where an increase in the wage floundered in the final moments of the 2013 legislative session despite an all-Democratic-controlled state government.
House Democrats and Gov. Mark Dayton have been aggressively pushing an increase in the state hourly wage from $6.15 to $9.50 by 2015. But hesitations from more moderate Senate Democrats, including Bakk, brought discussions to a halt in conference committee last year, where the upper chamber was pitching a much more modest $7.75 wage increase.
But a push in Washington to increase the federal wage and fears of a weak mid-term election turnout have Democrats in states across the nation taking a hard look at minimum-wage proposals.
In Minnesota, a minimum wage increase is seen my many operatives as a way to shift the political conversation away from issues like the flailing state and federal health care exchanges.
The issue will be a focus of the 2014 legislative session for Democrats, and there will be a quick push to pass minimum wage and avoid the end-of-session politics that complicated the proposal’s passage last year.
Both chambers voted to reconvene the conference committee on the minimum wage on Tuesday, with extensive hearings planned in the first weeks of session.
“With a Democratic Senate and all this momentum building nationally, I think we can get something done this year,” said DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, chief author of the House bill to raise the minimum wage. “The crisis of low-wage jobs is something many, many people are feeling, and if the Democratic Party can’t be the party to step up and address it, there really can’t be anyone else.”
President Barack Obama got the ball rolling in his State of the Union address, making the minimum wage a focus of the speech and promising to give all federal contract workers a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour starting in 2015. He also joined House Democrats in Congress in their push to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10.
National polls show broad support for proposals aiming to tackle income inequality issues. A December Washington Post-ABC News poll found 57 percent of Americans say lawmakers should pursue policies that put the economic system more in balance.
The recent Minnesota Poll in the Star Tribune found that 42 percent of Minnesotans support increasing the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour and another 37 percent say it should go above the current minimum of $6.15, but not as high as $9.50. Many workers in Minnesota make the federal minimum wage for large employers.
Most agree, an increase in the wage will be a strong issue for Democrats to run on in a non-presidential election year, when turnout drops significantly from youth and minority voters in the DFL base.
“They will want to have that issue going forward into the fall campaign,” Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said. “Raising the minimum wage, to a lot of Minnesotans, just looks like a simple equity issue and that’s what the Democratic brand is all about. Being able to claim credit for that will be really useful to them in the 2014 campaign.”
In addition to U.S. Sen. Al Franken, House Democrats and Dayton are up for re-election next year, while the Senate is not up again until 2016.
But the Raise the Wage Coalition, which supports a $9.50 increase by 2015, has been making it feel like a campaign year in senators’ districts all summer and winter long. The coalition of labor unions, DFL advocacy organizations and religious groups have been doing door-knocks and flooding senators’ Capitol voicemail boxes with messages supporting the minimum wage in the weeks leading up to session.
“It’s a pretty easy issue to talk to Minnesotans about,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Chris Shields.
Constitutional amendment backup
In case that political pressure isn’t enough for Democrats, Rep. Tom Anzelc has a backup plan.
He has introduced a constitutional amendment that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 by 2015 and adjust it for inflation permanently starting in 2016. For Anzelc, a longtime Democrat from Balsam Township on the Iron Range, increasing the minimum wage is a no-brainer in rural Minnesota.
“There’s a growing movement in the country concerning this issue of income inequality,” Anzelc said. “It just seems to me rather embarrassing in Minnesota, a progressive state, a state in which at this time both houses of the Legislature are a majority held by DFLers, that we couldn’t get this done. I don’t want another session to come and go without us being able to raise the minimum wage.”
Just last fall, voters in New Jersey amended the state constitution with nearly 61 percent support to raise the minimum wage $1 to $8.25 and adjust it for inflation. In Washington, Democrats are working to orchestrate and place state-level minimum wage proposals on the ballot in states with hotly contested U.S. Senate and House races. That includes New Mexico, South Dakota, Arkansas and Alaska.
“November of 2014 is going to be another tight, difficult and close election. There’s a lot at stake. A lot of the competitive House races are in greater Minnesota,” Anzelc noted. “This issue being on the ballot I think will energize the electorate.”
But there’s some hesitation in Minnesota to go that route after the 2012 election saw two divisive constitutional amendments — one to require photo identification to vote and another to ban gay marriage — placed on the ballot. Both amendments failed, and Democrats won majorities in both chambers. On the campaign trail, they criticized Republicans for legislating through the constitution.
“I do think we can work out a legislative solution. It would be preferable to do this in statute,” House Speaker Paul Thissen said. “I just don’t think we should be doing any constitutional amendments this year. I think we should do a statutory resolution. I think people are tired of constitutional amendments.
Opponents shifting strategy
Opponents of a huge bump in the minimum wage are starting to see some increase as a foregone conclusion.
“I feel confidently that the minimum wage is going to increase,” said Minnesota Grocers Association President Jamie Pfuhl. “When you look at the fact that Minnesota is at $6.15 an hour, something is going to happen and everyone knows that. Now it really is the negotiation pieces and what that looks like.”
For the grocery industry, that means how the wage is phased in, if it will be tied to inflation and if there will be any exemptions for youth workers. Many of the industry’s workers are between age 16 and 19, Pfuhl said, and many stores fear they will have to cut back if the wage goes up to $9.50.
Dan McElroy, president of the Hospitality Minnesota, says his group supports a reasonable increase in the minimum wage if it includes a so-called “tipped-employee tier” of the minimum wage, which would put the wage floor at $7.25 an hour as long as an employee’s earnings and tips average $12 an hour for a pay period. If an employee makes less than that, their base rate would increase to the current state-mandated minimum.
Bakk now says he believes the Senate could support a $9.50 increase if phased in more slowly, fearing “unintended consequences” on small businesses and group homes, but he is opposed to adding any qualifications on tipped employees.
“There’s a pretty wide variance of [senators] who wants to go up to $9 and other people who think $8.50 is as high as we should go,” said Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, the chief author of the bill in the Senate. “I think everybody knows it’s the right thing to do. It’s just how do we do it without hurting our businesses in our communities.”