Despite impassioned testimony Thursday about struggling families, leather-worn shoes and pockets devoid of change for the smallest chocolate bar, efforts to increase wages for the working poor in Louisiana appear to be dead for the legislative session.
What was likely the last gasp came in a meeting of the Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations, where Sen. Ben Nevers asked his colleagues to advance legislation setting minimum wage at $9.50 an hour. Committee members listened, asked a few questions, killed Senate Bill 123, then adjourned for the weekend.
On the other side of the Capitol, the House Labor Committee already held the funerals for a slate of bills that sought to tinker with minimum wage.
One of the dead proposals would have set a minimum wage of $8.25 beginning on July 1, 2015, and then gradually increased it. Another would have created a $10.10 minimum wage.
Still in circulation is Senate Bill 46, which would establish a minimum wage of $10 an hour, even higher than Nevers’ proposal. State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, could have run with the bill Thursday but didn’t.
“Maybe some of my colleagues may have a change of heart this weekend,” she said.
Workers at the low end of the pay scale in Louisiana generally get by on a $7.25 hourly federal rate. Louisiana does not have a minimum wage. Instead, the state follows the federal rate.
Nationally, Democrats are trying to make minimum wage their poster issue much like Republicans are focusing on the Affordable Care Act.
Four states — Minnesota, Wyoming, Arkansas and Georgia — have minimum wages lower than the federal rate.
Another cluster of states, Louisiana among them, has no state minimum wage law.
AFL-CIO President Louis Reine asked Senate labor committee members Thursday to imagine supporting a family on $14,500 a year. He said that is what people working full time at minimum wage do.
“This is a proposal to let the citizens vote on the issue,” Reine said, pointing out that Nevers’ bill is a constitutional amendment that would require a vote of the people.
State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, joked that SB123 might create a legislative pay raise. Johns said legislators’ pay equates to $1.02 an hour.
Johns added that he wasn’t trying to make light of the issue.
Nevers told the committee that he worked hard to make his proposal palatable. He said he limited it to businesses with 50 or more full-time employees. Legislators could exempt migrant workers.
“A person works a full-time job ... they should make above the federal poverty level,” he said.
Nevers said the bill would help those without any leather on their shoes and those who can’t scrape together enough change to buy their children a candy bar at the grocery store.
“Do we stand with the people or do we stand with the folks who would say this would damage the economy?” he asked.
Nevers said he realizes Louisiana is a poor state. He said he realizes people could be laid off if his legislation became law.
According to an analysis prepared by the Legislative Fiscal Office, more than 1,300 state government workers alone would get a pay boost from Nevers’ bill. The increases would cost the state an initial $2.5 million.
Business interests urged the committee to reject the bill. Dawn Starns, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said many businesses already are operating on a small margin. She said businesses would have to increase their prices, resulting in consumers paying more.
“It’s a ripple effect,” she said.
Getting one last opportunity to address the committee, Nevers asked legislators to think about the workers.
“This is about the people who are making the bare minimum wage,” he said.
The committee voted, without opposition, to defer the bill, effectively killing it.