With governor’s urging, Louisiana Senate panel advances minimum wage, equal pay bills _lowres

 

An effort to lift the mandatory hourly wage for the state's lowest paid workers was rejected Wednesday by a state Senate committee, as Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the impact on business owners.

Senate Bill 153, by New Orleans Sen. Troy Carter, a Democrat, would have set a state minimum wage of $8 per hour beginning Jan 1. And starting in 2019, the minimum wage would have increased to $8.50. Louisiana adheres to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

The measure failed 7 to 3 in the Senate Finance committee, on a party-line vote. 

Increasing the minimum wage was a campaign promise of Gov. John Bel Edwards. This is the second year in a row the bill has been unsuccessful since Edwards has taken office. In a statement, he condemned the Wednesday vote, noting that many people in Louisiana are not earning a "living wage." 

"It has been more than a decade since Louisianans living on minimum wage saw an increase in their pay. That's unacceptable, and I am disappointed that legislators on this committee did not see fit to give these hardworking Louisianans a modest increase in their pay," Edwards said. "We talk a lot about family values in Louisiana, but when the Legislature had the opportunity to actively value families, it failed."

Opponents of the legislation said they didn't feel it was appropriate for the government to be mandating business decisions. They also raised concerns that the wage increase would result in higher unemployment rates. 

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said he disagreed with the bill's strategy. He said he believes wages would increase if the job market improved and legislators should be focusing their energy on job creation. 

"If you had a robust economy attracting industry and attracting jobs, wouldn't you agree that our income would rise substantially," Appel asked Carter during debate of the bill. 

But Sen. Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport, said the state's priorities are misplaced because it shells out millions of dollars in tax breaks for business and industry, but rarely passes legislation to help its poorest residents. 

"Something must be wrong somewhere. We must be insensitive," Tarver said. "Let's help the little man. We always help the big boys."

To date, 29 states and Washington D.C. have minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum wage. In Louisiana, 5.3 percent of workers earn the federal minimum wage or lower. Employees like restaurant waitstaff and agricultural employees are exempt from the wage laws. But Louisiana has a higher percentage of workers who earn minimum wages than any other state in the nation.

Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said the hike would have given effected workers an additional $852 per year. He noted that one in three of those workers are single parents. About 119,000 children live in homes where their parents or guardians earn minimum wages. 

But the Republican majority of the committee expressed concerns that business owners dealing with the increased costs would ultimately lay off staff or automate the entry level jobs creating even less opportunity. 

Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said people who feel they're being underpaid have the freedom to seek out another job. 

Carter, however, took issue with the notion that job opportunities were that easy to come by for some of the most vulnerable people in the state. 

"Pull yourself up by your boot straps? What an offensive statement," he said. "How do you pull yourself up by your boot straps when you have no boots? When you have no straps?"

Voting against SB153 (7) were: Sens. Bret Allain, R-Franklin; Conrad Appel, R-Metairie; Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro; Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell; Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles; and Bodi White, R-Central. 

Voting in favor of the higher minimum wage (3): Sens. Tarver; Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge; and Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans. 

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.