In his fifth State of the Union, President Barack Obama called on state and local government leaders to raise the minimum wage in their jurisdictions. It was a twist from his previous annual address, when Obama proposed that Congress elevate the federal wage floor to no avail. Though legislation materialized in both the U.S. House and Senate last year, only Democrats signed on and neither bill ever left committee.
“In the year since I asked this Congress to raise the minimum wage, five states have passed laws to raise theirs,” Obama said, referring to California, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey. Trying to capitalize on last year’s productivity in city halls and state houses, Obama made a direct plea to his counterparts in state and local government: “To every mayor, governor, state legislator in America, I say, you don't have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on.”
At least at the national level, support for an increase to the federal minimum wage varies by political persuasion. Obama is correct that a majority of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage, but the proposal is much more popular among Democrats and independents than among Republicans, according to a poll this month conducted by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. The same poll found that Democrats and Republicans hold inverse beliefs about the potential negative impacts of a wage hike. About two-thirds of Republican respondents agreed with the statement that raising the minimum wage will lead businesses to cut jobs; about two-thirds of Democratic respondents did not agree.
Even before Obama’s speech, members of his party had set plans in motion to require a higher minimum wage in certain states. The governors of Maryland, Washington state, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Delaware used their January State of the State addresses to voice support for a state minimum wage hike. As of Jan. 27, 11 states were considering legislation that would raise the state minimum wage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia. So far, 21 states and the District of Columbia already require a minimum wage above the federal standard of $7.25 per hour.
Even local minimum wage requirements have received some attention in the past year. Voters in the city of Sea-Tac, Wash., approved a ballot measure last November that set $15 as its minimum wage. The District of Columbia and its two neighboring Maryland counties coordinated three parallel minimum wage bills last December to raise the wage floor for the metro area.
The momentum appears to have carried over into 2014. In January Seattle Mayor Ed Murray issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage for all city workers and has said he is open to increasing the citywide minimum wage to $15 an hour. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee says he wants to put a minimum wake hike on the November ballot. San Diego's interim mayor, Todd Gloria, announced his support for an increase to his city's minimum wage in his first State of the City address. Michael Brennan, the mayor of Portland, Maine, also called for raising the city minimum wage in his annual address. All four mayors are Democrats.
In states with gubernatorial contests this year, Democratic candidates are embracing the minimum wage as a way to portray themselves as champions of middleclass workers. The Democratic Governors Association released a memo Jan. 29 outlining how Democratic challengers in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois and Kansas support lifting either the state or federal minimum wage.
Ultimately, Obama has no control over whether any of these states lift their minimum wage. The most he can do is bring attention to the issue via the bully pulpit. However, he did announce that he'll increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for employees working on new federal contracts. Over time, that could impact some 200,000 people, according to an estimate reported in The Washington Post.