As Louisiana ushers in a new Democratic governor, some political activists are hoping that John Bel Edwards’ election signals an opportunity for more progressive priorities that have been impossible to pass under Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
One of the key distinctions in the election between Edwards and his Republican rival, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, was their positions on the minimum wage.
Edwards thinks it should be higher. Vitter, who suffered a landslide defeat, disagreed.
With Edwards set to take office Jan. 11, it’s unclear how quickly he’ll attempt to push for a higher minimum wage. On the campaign trail, he said he would prefer that Congress adopt a higher federal minimum wage — rather than state lawmakers tackling an increase — but promised he would push for the state to set an increased minimum if the federal government doesn’t act.
Louisiana is one of five states that doesn’t have a minimum wage, meaning it defaults to the federal government’s current $7.25 rate. According to information compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states have set minimum wage limits higher than the federal rate.
The minimum wage today is $3 per hour below the 1960s rate adjusted for inflation.
The effort to raise the wage doesn’t seem to be gaining much steam in Washington, so it likely will be left to Louisiana lawmakers to decide whether the state wants to set its own rate.
During a recent call with reporters, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of the Democrats pushing for a federal wage increase, acknowledged that it’s unlikely to pass.
Edwards, who hasn’t come out with a detailed plan for increasing the minimum wage here, said he wanted to spend time evaluating the impact of an increase. He identified $8.50 as a possible target and said he would prefer any increase be spread over four years to mitigate the immediate impact on business.
Vitter’s position, which he stated during debates and other appearances, was that a minimum wage hike could harm businesses and lead to job cuts.
He voted against proposed increases in the U.S. Senate and was backed by several business groups, including the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, who cited his positions on issues like the minimum wage as being better for business.
Experts disagree on the ultimate impact of a higher minimum wage. The chairman of LSU’s economics program, for example, is among those who argue that there can be unintended consequences.
But there is broad support among the state’s residents. An LSU poll found last year that three out of four Louisiana residents, including more than half of those who identify as Republicans, support increasing the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.
“When you ask people if they want to raise the minimum wage, the answer is always ‘yes,’ ” said Jan Moller, director of the liberal Louisiana Budget Project. “The political opposition at the Capitol has been enough to hold this back.”
The Louisiana Budget Project released a report last year that found nearly 360,000 Louisiana workers would benefit from a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour. The report also found raising the wage to that level would pump nearly $689 million into the state economy, mostly through new consumer spending.
A smaller hike — to the $8.50 Edwards has mentioned — would directly impact 184,000 workers and produce more than $187 million in new economic growth, the report said.
Dawn Starns, Louisiana director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said her group opposes increases because of the possible impact on small businesses — largely for the same reasons Vitter outlined in his opposition. The NFIB endorsed Vitter in the race.
“Across the board, our members oppose it,” she said, noting that she was speaking in general about increases, as she’s seen no specific proposal from Edwards. “Our members are obviously operating on a thin margin. They enjoy the flexibility of being competitive in the market they are in.”
“Every state economy is different,” she said. “Businesses pay what they can.”
She said any increase in the minimum wage has a ripple effect. Those who make below the new wage get pay bumps, but so do those who have been making above the minimum wage — to reflect their skills sets and keep the pace with the new market.
“Whenever you place these new mandates, you’re messing with the economy,” Starns said. “Government is putting its finger in the economy, and when that happens, there are consequences.”
And that argument has been good enough for state legislators in recent years. Multiple proposals have come up but never made it out of committee. Last year, minimum wage bills barely got a passing glance.
But Moller said that having a new governor gives advocates hope.
“We know that Louisiana governors are very powerful, and their word carries a lot of weight at the Capitol,” he said. “Just having (Edwards’ support) on the record is an enormous ray of hope for families that are struggling to make ends meet.”
Moller said a minimum wage increase isn’t a slam dunk: Republicans still hold majorities in the Louisiana House and Senate, and business groups are powerful lobbying forces .
“We take absolutely nothing for granted,” Moller said. “There’s still a lot of hearts and minds to be changed.”