HARRISBURG, Pa.—As the 2019 legislative sessions open, measures to raise the minimum wage have been proposed in eight of the 21 states where it’s been stuck at $7.25 an hour for the last decade—but they all face opposition from historically hostile Republican legislative majorities or governors.
The best prospects, says Economic Policy Institute senior analyst David Cooper, are in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, the two Northeastern states that still use the federal minimum of $7.25. In New Hampshire, where Democrats won control of both chambers of the state legislature last November, new state Senate President Donna Soucy has introduced a measure to raise the minimum to $10 an hour, and three other bills are also in the works, including one that would increase it to $12 in 2022.
The Granite State abolished its own minimum wage in 2011, so it goes by the federal $7.25, which has not been increased since 2009. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, told WMUR-TV during his 2016 campaign that he opposed setting a state minimum, but was “open to a responsible increase in the federal minimum wage, provided there is a strong economic and moral case for it.”
“My expectation is that Sununu will veto anything,” says Cooper.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, “remains committed to raising the minimum,” says spokesperson J.J. Abbott, and he expects a bill that would bring it up to $12 to be introduced in the next few weeks. Wolf has backed similar bills several times, but none have ever gotten out of committee in the GOP-controlled legislature.
“We’ll definitely be flexible if the majority is open to raising the wage,” Abbott says. But he’s skeptical of a New York-style compromise in which rural areas would get a lower minimum than large cities. “There isn’t a single place in Pennsylvania,” he says, where someone making $7.25 an hour can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment.
“Our caucus looks forward to working with members from both sides of the aisle to find solutions for, and ways to help, Pennsylvania’s lowest-income families,” says Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler. “However, those solutions cannot come at the risk of eliminating the jobs those very same families rely on.”
In Virginia, state Sen. David Marsden (D-Fairfax) has introduced a bill to raise the minimum to $8 on July 1 and $11.25 in 2022—to get its purchasing power “back to where we were in 1974,” he explains. “It’s more important to pay people for their labor than to give them tax credits and food stamps.”
But he doesn’t expect it to pass, even though the state has a Democratic governor, and Republicans hold only two-seat majorities in both houses of the legislature. “Maybe on the floor you could squeeze off a few votes, but it’s the committees that matter,” Marsden says, and the Commerce and Labor committees will be heavily lobbied by opponents of raising the minimum.
“It’s not going to get out of committee,” he says flatly.
The biggest barrier to raising the minimum, says Cooper, is the “pure ideological opposition in the Republican Party.” Elected officials and restaurant-industry lobbyists tend to contend that it will cost jobs, while harder-line ideologues argue that only the market, not the government, should determine wages. While six states considered solidly “red,” most recently Missouri and Arkansas last November, have raised their minimums since 2014, they did it by ballot initiatives, not by legislation. Bills in states with Republican legislative majorities that range from solid to overwhelming are extreme long shots.
The biggest barrier to raising the minimum, says Cooper, is the pure ideological opposition in the Republican Party.
New Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers told the Wisconsin State Journal before he was inaugurated Jan. 7 that he expects his first budget proposal, which he plans to unveil in late February, to offer a “clear pathway” to increase the state’s minimum. But state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), who has pledged to preserve Scott Walker’s legacy, told reporters after Evers’ inauguration that he opposed any increase.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Williams said Jan. 7 that he wants to raise the state’s minimum, but similar bills have died in committee in the last three years. Democratic state legislators have introduced bills to raise it to $15 in Kentucky, to $9 to $15 in Indiana, and to $10.50 in Oklahoma. Republicans control those states’ legislative chambers by majorities that range from 3-2 to more than 4-1.
Oklahoma AFL-CIO President Jimmy Curry told the Enid News in early January that $10.50 is a “good starting point,” but it’s still not enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment without a second job.
In Texas, whose more than 190,000 minimum-wage workers are more than any other state still at $7.25, no bill to raise it is in the offing. Austin and San Antonio would be likely to set higher local minimums if they could, but a 2003 state law prohibits that. All but four of the 21 states still at $7.25 have similar laws, with Kentucky and Iowa enacting them in 2017.
Five Southern states have neither a state minimum nor a law setting it equal to the federal level, and Georgia and Wyoming have not hiked their $5.15 minimum since 2001. That means workers not covered by federal law, such as seasonal farmworkers, can be paid less than $7.25, says Cooper, and “shows the need for federal action.”
The House is likely to pass a bill raising the federal minimum this year, he adds. A possible sponsor is new Education and Labor Committee chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who introduced a bill in 2017 to bring it to $15 an hour in 2024.
North Carolina increased its minimum for state workers to $15 last July, but state Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) told the Winston-Salem Journal that raising it for all workers was “unnecessary.”
“When the cost of labor exceeds the value of the job, the job is lost,” she said. “North Carolina does not need to price young, inexperienced workers out of the marketplace.”
Cooper calls that “the most common incorrect perception of low-wage workers.” Most workers making the rock-bottom $7.25 are young, he says, but those making just over the minimum tend to be older. According to an EPI study he did in 2013, more than half the workers making less than $10.10 an hour were over 30, and only one-eighth were under 20. Low-wage workers over 55 outnumbered teenagers.
“That’s not learning job skills,” says David Marsden. “That’s trying to support a family.”
The Virginia legislator says he is perplexed that Republicans “are more willing to raise the earned-income tax credit than to pay people for their work. The value is in work.”
Why is he sponsoring a bill he doesn’t believe will make it out of committee? “To keep hope alive,” he says. “And to prepare for 2020.”
Virginia will elect a new legislature this November.