On the final day in March, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill that will make the state minimum wage $10.10 per hour in 2017, the first state in the country to mandate pay at that level. Other states -- Maryland, Massachusetts and Hawaii -- are expected to vote on increasing their minimum wage in the next few months. Despite polls that show slightly more than half of Republicans support an increase to the minimum wage, only states with left-leaning political leadership have acted on the issue in 2014. But that may change in the fall.
In four states where Republicans control the legislatures, voters may decide to amend state wage requirements by ballot measures: Alaska, Michigan, South Dakota and Arkansas. In all four states, local polling suggests that likely voters would support a wage increase. Currently 21 states and the District of Columbia have a minimum wage above the federal requirement of $7.25 per hour. Washington state has the highest pay requirement at $9.32 today. (Because Washington's minimum wage goes up with inflation, it may meet or exceed the $10.10 pay level set by Connecticut in 2017.)
In Alaska, the proposal would lift the state's lowest wages from $7.75 an hour to $9.75 by January 2016. Future increases would be automatically tied to the rate of inflation. Campaigners for a ballot measure have already collected enough signatures to put the issue up for a vote in the August primary, but Republican lawmakers could undo those efforts: In 2002 the legislature passed a minimum wage bill to preempt a voter initiative. Within a year, it removed the provision that indexed future increases to inflation.
Last week Alaska House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt told local reporters he was thinking about introducing a bill to preempt the ballot initiative again this session, which ends April 20. Ed Flanagan, a former labor commissioner in Alaska and now-chairman of Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage, said he would prefer to see voters decide the issue because historically state politicians haven't supported automatic increases indexed to inflation. If the Alaska legislature passes an identical minimum wage law, they're likely to gut the indexing provision again, he said. As evidence, Flanagan pointed to the 11 states with the indexing provision: Ten of them did so by voter initiative. Flanagan said he hopes Republicans will run out of time before they can preempt the ballot measure. So far, no minimum wage bill has been introduced this session.
In Michigan, Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate introduced three separate bills to raise the minimum wage, but Republicans have not granted hearings for any of them. A campaign is still underway to collect the 258,000 necessary signatures by a May 28 deadline, but the issue would probably pass in a popular vote. A March poll found that 65 percent of likely voters in Michigan supported raising the minimum wage from $7.40 to $10.10 per hour. As with national polls on the minimum wage, support in Michigan was higher among Democrats than among independents and Republicans.
“Opposition by Republican elected officials is explained by their preference for prioritizing industry over their own constituencies,” said Jack Temple, a policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group supporting minimum wage hikes across the country.
But the Michigan Chamber of Commerce argues that higher wages will force companies to absorb the costs elsewhere, which ultimately hurt lawmakers' constituents. “These dollars have to come from somewhere,” said Wendy Block, the chamber’s director of health policy and human resources. “They’re going to come from cut jobs, cut hours and cut benefits.”
A recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the federal minimum wage would lift incomes for 16.5 million people, but would also cost 500,000 jobs. That information could be critical for swaying voters. A Bloomberg National Poll in March found that while 69 percent of Americans supported a $10.10 minimum wage, a majority (57 percent) said the tradeoff -- even at a ratio of one job lost for every 33 jobs receiving better pay-- was unacceptable.
Three of the four states with campaigns for a minimum wage ballot measure have Republican governors. The campaigns for ballot initiatives can find hope in last year's elections, when New Jersey voters re-elected Republican Gov. Chris Christie and also opted to raise the minimum wage.
The comparison isn't perfect because Democrats control the House and Senate in New Jersey and the differences between Democratic and Republican elected leaders on the minimum wage was more nuanced than in Michigan, where bills have stalled in committee. Christie supported a raise to the minimum wage, but wanted incremental increases over three years and no automatic inflation-based increases in the future. Democrats wanted the full increase in one year, with future increases tied to rising consumer prices.
In Michigan, Republicans haven’t proposed moderate alternatives to Democratic bills, but a Christie-like option could be palatable to business owners, according to Block. “There are many within our [chamber] membership that would probably support reasonable increases,” she said. “But I’m not so sure proponents want to have that conversation with the business community.” Block pointed to a December The New York Times story that detailed how Democrats were using the minimum wage as a catalyst for improving turnout in the mid-term elections and as diversion from attacks about the new federal health care law.
Of the four states that are likely to consider a minimum wage ballot measure this year, three have U.S. Senate races rated as “toss ups” by the Cook Political Report. Block speculated that Democrats would use the minimum wage as a way to energize their base and help their Congressional candidates win in November. In the March Bloomberg poll, about 49 percent of Americans said that their opinions about the minimum wage law would affect their decisions about which candidates to vote for in the November 2014 elections for Congress. The contested senate seats in Michigan, Alaska and Arkansas are all currently held by Democrats.