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Indexing Minnesota’s minimum wage for inflation a divisive issue for DFL legislators

House Democrats want the wage to increase automatically over time, but Senate Democrats say the bill will fail in the upper chamber if the provision is included.

Rep. Ryan Winkler thinks indexing the wage to inflation is still on the table, but he’s open to discussion on some kind of a solution with the Senate.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

It’s only the second week of the 2014 legislative session, but Democratic lawmakers are already in the middle of intense negotiations over how to implement a likely minimum wage of $9.50.

Members of the House and Senate minimum wage conference committee traded offers Tuesday evening, with the issue of indexing the wage to inflation emerging as the key sticking point in negotiations.

House Democrats feel strongly that the wage should automatically increase over time, but Democrats in the Senate insist the bill will fail in the upper chamber if the provision is included.

“There is no circumstance under which the Senate is going to do inflation,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said as he followed the proceedings. “They can sit there until the snow melts — it’s not going to happen. We have checked with our members and we don’t have the votes for that.”

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On Monday night, both sides settled on raising the wage to $9.50 per hour for large employers by 2016. Currently, Minnesota’s minimum wage stands at $6.15, although most workers are covered under the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Senators say their willingness to move up to $9.50 was a huge concession for their caucus, which barely passed a bill last session to raise the wage to $7.75 per hour.

House Democrats originally wanted the minimum wage to hit $9.50 by next year with indexing to start in 2016. They now want indexing to start in 2017.

“It was a really heavy lift to get ourselves to $9.50 and the House has given that no consideration at all,” Bakk said, adding that it took months to move his caucus to that number. “That didn’t mean anything, and there’s not another move on our part.”

The two sides appear to be talking little and positioning themselves for the sort of politicking usually reserved for the final days and hours of the legislative session.  Neither side believes the other is immovable in its position.

“It would be hard for me to imagine a bill without some kind of regular adjustment,” DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, author of the House version, said after the hearing. “But I’ve talked to a lot of imaginative people.” 

“If you want to insist on a negotiating point, you always make sure your side doesn’t have the votes,” he added.  

For Winkler’s part, he says he thinks indexing the wage to inflation is still on the table, but he’s open to discussion on some kind of a solution with the Senate.

There are other provisions the Senate would like to see in the final bill. They include: a $7.25 youth wage for those under 18, a $5.15 training wage, a $7.25 wage for people who sleep while they work (such as group-home and long-term-care providers who are paid to sleep overnight at a home) and retention of the $5.25 minimum-wage requirement for small employers. The original House proposal didn’t include a youth wage or a sleeping wage. 

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Lawmakers stayed away from other sticky issues such as parental leave and wage exemptions for agriculture workers.

Senators want to pass a bill that only raises the wage to $9.50 by 2016, but House Democrats want to deal with all the provisions on the table in one proposal.

Winkler said he will consider those options, including the indexing question, and will make a counter-offer as soon as Wednesday. He tried to end the evening on a positive note.

“I’ve heard lots of different rumors about where different people are and what they believe about different issues, and I think a substantive discussion about what we think is the right thing to do for the state is where we need to be,” Winkler said. “Hopefully, as a group of Democrats, we can get that done together.”