Our Views: Minimum wage bill hits a roadblock _lowres

Gov. John Bel Edwards testifies on May 3, 2016 in the Senate Labor Committee in support of minimum wage increase and equal pay bills while Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, listens.

AP Photo by Melinda Deslatte

Increasing the minimum wage in Louisiana is a primary goal for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

He repeated it like a mantra on the campaign trail. He gave it a featured spot in his Jan. 11 inauguration address. It was the issue that brought him to testify before a legislative committee — the first governor in years to do so.

Big business and small, tea partiers and evangelicals — Republicans all — have battled him every step of the way. But it’s the 200 state employees being paid less than $8 an hour, who, come Monday, may very well end Edwards’ quest — at least for the time being.

Senate Bill 269 would establish a state minimum wage (Louisiana is one of five states without one) and set the amount at $8 in January 2017, which is 75 cents per hour or $30 a week more than now. It would then rise to $8.50 per hour in January 2018.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia set the wage above the federal $7.25 minimum. Arkansas’s $8 minimum is the only state around Louisiana in that number.

Increasing the minimum would be “extremely detrimental to Louisiana’s economic competitiveness,” said Renee Amar, director of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry’s small-business section.

Both sides can rely on beaucoup studies to support their positions. But the studies that make the most impact on politicians are polls that show a majority of Louisiana voters — 76 percent in the respected LSU Louisiana Survey released April 11, for instance — favor raising the minimum wage to $8.50.

After Edwards’ March 31 testimony, SB269 eked out of the Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations on a party-line vote. The thinking was that if the measure made it to the full Senate, it had a good chance of passing the GOP majority. After all, 13 Republicans joined the Democrats to provide a 28-10 win for the measure requiring men and women be paid equally.

Then, maybe, if three or four Republicans on the House Labor Committee went to get coffee right before the vote, minimum wage would head to the full House. That momentum could persuade some of the Republicans — only a dozen need to defect to hit the 53 majority — to allow the legislation to land on Edwards’ desk.

At least, that was the thinking. But all that was sidetracked when it was discovered that if the minimum wage increased, 178 classified state employees and 22 temporary employees would see a pay bump, costing the state $204,200 for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The rules require the Senate Finance Committee to vet legislation that carries a cost to the state fisc. SB269 sat in the committee for almost a month.

On Monday, Senate Finance finally will take up the bill. The committee has a GOP majority, several of whom privately said last week that they plan to vote “no.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Democrat, says he’s been sitting on the bill only because the measure’s sponsor, New Orleans Sen. Karen Peterson, who also chairs the state Democratic Party, didn’t ask for a hearing until last week.

Ever the optimist, LaFleur wouldn’t handicap minimum wage’s chances of success, saying only that the committee had not been advancing legislation that carries a cost. The panel could postpone a final vote until the state budget clears the House sometime in mid-May, he said. But that would leave only three weeks to clear the legislative process during a time that lawmakers are struggling with a $600 million deficit.

Edwards said Thursday he found the situation “very problematic.”

“We’re working to move that bill because it’s an important way to address the situation in the state of Louisiana where we have too many families living in poverty, too many children living in poverty,” he said.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics counts 6.3 percent of Louisiana workers who are paid on an hourly rate who make minimum wage or less. Full time, that’s $15,080 per year, which is right at the federal poverty level for a family of two. Roughly 11 percent of the families living in Louisiana make less than that amount, and nearly 20 percent of the population is officially considered poverty-stricken, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While Edwards reminds many in the GOP of poll numbers, the governor, who usually ends speeches asking for prayers, also basically argues to the tea party/evangelical wing that this legislative assembly should treat those wearing gold rings and fine apparel the same as those wearing filthy clothes.

Though an increased minimum wage already seems well down the road to political perdition, Edwards says he’s not giving up: “I’m never finished.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB.

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