Legislation that would, for the first time, set a minimum wage in the state of Louisiana that's higher than the federal level is advancing at the State Capitol, but faces continued opposition from business groups.
Senate Bill 153 won approval in the Senate Labor Committee on Wednesday following a hearing on the merits of setting an $8 an hour minimum wage beginning in 2018 that would increase to $8.50 the following year.
A similar proposal last year had to be vetted by a second committee, where it ultimately died before a hearing from the full Senate. The latest attempt could face a similar hurdle again this year. If it makes it through the Senate, several more steps stand in its path. Notably, it would still need vetting by the GOP-controlled House before the session ends on June 8.
Louisiana is currently one of five states that has no minimum wage. It relies on the federal minimum wage level, which has been $7.25 an hour since 2009.
"Many other states have recognized the significance of this, and once again, unfortunately, Louisiana is behind the curve," said Sen. Troy Carter, a New Orleans Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Business groups in Louisiana have long opposed a minimum wage hike, citing the potential strain that could lead to employee cutbacks and other unintended consequences.
"For us, it comes down to that there is never a good time to increase the cost of doing business," said Dawn Starns, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "The market has to drive wages."
Carter's proposal would not apply to student employees or some restaurant and agriculture employees whose jobs are already exempted from the federal minimum wage laws.
The Louisiana Legislature has long debated setting a minimum wage without much success. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who included the minimum wage increase in his campaign platform in 2015, supports Carter's bill.
Edwards, during his monthly call-in radio show, noted that the current wage is nearly a decade old. "Quite frankly, in 2017, I don't think that's a meaningful wage," he said.
A public opinion poll conducted by LSU's Public Policy Research Lab last year found that 76 percent of Louisiana residents favor raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.
According to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states began the new year with minimum wage hikes. Washington D.C., Maryland and Oregon are all scheduled to increase theirs in July.
Several advocates spoke out in favor of the increase, calling it a boost to families.
"This bill is really about addressing Louisiana's most serious problem, which is poverty," said Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project.
Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat who voted in favor of the bill, said she didn't think that it goes far enough. "Those individuals who make more money will spend more money and make the economy more robust," she said.
Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, said that he thinks that the state should leave it up to market forces to dictate how much jobs pay. "Businesses have to compete with other businesses," he said.
James Patterson, of the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, testified that a government-driven increase in wages could lead to wage inflation and pricing low-skilled workers out of jobs. "(Carter) has the best of intentions here, however we disagree philosophically with where this will take our economy," Patterson said.
Carter said he recognizes that it still has a long way to go in the process.
"We're going to fight on the Senate floor, and if we are fortunate enough to get it off the Senate floor, we're going to fight on the House side," he said.