The Week in Politics: Legislatures Take On Minimum Wage, Legal Scandals in the South and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | April 1, 2016
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson fired special prosecutor David Pascoe, center, but Pascoe vowed to remain on the job until the courts weigh in on the controversial case. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT)

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to "The Week in Politics" newsletter for free.

When States Feel Forced to Increase Minimum Wage

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. At least that's the sentiment among some state lawmakers when it comes to raising the minimum wage.

With a bill sailing through both legislative chambers, California is set to become the first state to guarantee a $15 hourly wage. The reason? To head off a pair of initiatives set for the November ballot, which would have not only created a $15 minimum but guaranteed further increases for inflation.

The fast-tracked bill reaches the $15 mark a bit more slowly than the competing measures proposed for the ballot -- most workers would be covered by 2022, rather than a year earlier. It also gives the governor authority to block scheduled increases if the economy or state budget are in bad shape.

Passage of the bill means that the labor-backed initiatives will be dropped from the fall ballot, as part of a deal worked out with union leaders. Gov. Jerry Brown is set to sign the bill Monday.

Oregon officials pulled off a similar move in March, increasing wages in steps, with amounts varying for rural and urban workers. Five days after Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed that bill, an initiative campaign pushing for $15 wages across the board suspended its operations.

Similar to Oregon, New York legislators struck a deal on Thursday that would raise the minimum wage to $15 in New York City and lower amounts elsewhere in the state.

The Arizona Legislature may also raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2020, in hopes of staving off a more generous ballot initiative.

"This bill is to counter the insane socialism we are hearing from other quarters," said GOP state Sen. Don Shooter.

And business groups in Maine are backing a $10 minimum wage measure this year in hopes of stemming the tide against a $12 initiative that's already qualified for the fall ballot.

Once proposals qualify for the ballot, they take on a momentum that might be slowed but seldom stopped. In 2014, voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota all approved minimum-wage increases.

"Lawmakers understand that they can either be a part of the increase, or they can deal with the fact that it was coming anyway," said David Cooper, a senior economic analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that receives funding from labor unions.

Kickbacks and Corruption in the South

Legal investigations in several Southern states could have far-reaching political implications.

In South Carolina, Attorney General Alan Wilson announced on Monday that he's firing David Pascoe, the special prosecutor in a corruption probe that grew out of a campaign finance case against former House Speaker Bobby Harrell. An award-winning report published last year by the Charleston Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity found that South Carolina lawmakers and candidates had spent nearly $100 million since 2009 on questionable personal purposes. Harrell pleaded guilty in 2014 to several violations.

Wilson has alleged that Pascoe abused his powers and violated procedures, but Pascoe has vowed to remain on the job, pending court review of the matter.

Wilson has received heavy criticism for appearing to interfere with the sensitive investigation -- a charge that he has denied. At a news conference on Wednesday, Wilson repeatedly said Pascoe had been "tainted" as a prosecutor. He blamed Pascoe for leaks, while at the same time saying he was in the dark as to what was happening with the case.

"How can our office impede a public corruption investigation when we haven't seen anything?" he said. "We have no clue whatsoever what is going on."

Despite the attention the issue had received, some had wondered whether Pascoe's investigation had lost steam. Wilson's action seems to suggest otherwise.

"The public will be outraged about it," said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause in South Carolina. "People cannot see any legitimate reason why Alan Wilson should try to take David Pascoe off the case."

In Kentucky, federal prosecutors have charged Timothy Longmeyer, a former cabinet official, in a bribery and kickback case that could implicate more officials.

Longmeyer served as secretary of the Personnel Cabinet under Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who was term-limited out of office last year. In that position, Longmeyer is alleged to have pressured the companies that administered the Kentucky Employees' Health Plan to provide more than $2 million in business to MC Squared Consulting, a Democratic firm. The firm is then alleged to have kicked back more than $200,000 to Longmeyer.

Days before the charges were announced, Longmeyer had stepped down as deputy attorney general. He was serving under Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, the former governor's son.

Longmeyer appears to be cooperating with investigators, which has turned attention to the question of whether other politicians or party officials will be charged.

"The FBI has charged that state authority was abused to funnel money to the campaigns of Democratic candidates," said Mike Biagi, executive director of the Kentucky Republican Party. "It appears that a culture of corruption is embedded in the highest levels of Democratic leadership."

U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey said it's "quite possible" that more indictments are coming.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, the purported affair between GOP Gov. Robert Bentley and one of his tope advisers, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, is now reportedly the subject of separate criminal investigations at the state and federal levels.

Mason announced Wednesday that she's stepping down from her job. Even as talk of impeachment begins to swirl around the capitol, Bentley insists that he'll serve out his term.

North Dakota Governor's Race Not Running True to Form

North Dakota Republicans will gather at the party's state convention Saturday in Fargo. Typically, convention endorsements are tantamount to winning the nomination in North Dakota.

That won't be the case this year in the race to succeed retiring GOP Gov Jack Dalrymple. State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem will likely receive the party's endorsement for governor, but businessman Doug Burgum vows to challenge him in the June 14 primary regardless.

After nearly 40 years in state office, including 15 as AG, Stenehjem enjoys wider name recognition. A poll released a month ago showed him holding a whopping 59- to 10-point lead over Burgum.

But Burgum, who made a mint selling a software company to Microsoft, has just started to open his wallet. He's spent some $500,000 on ads touting his record in business and lambasting state officials for mismanaging North Dakota's oil windfall and subsequent downturn.

"It's the old guard against the new guard, the establishment vs. the outsider," said Robert Wood, a University of North Dakota political scientist.

This has been a big year for outsiders, but Wood said that the North Dakota GOP maintains an ethic that's been lost at the national level. Namely, that candidates should pay their dues and wait their turn before seeking top office.

The eventual GOP nominee is considered dead certain to win election as governor in the fall.

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to "The Week in Politics" newsletter for free.