Edwards testifies for equal pay

Gov. John Bel Edwards testifies Thursday, March 14, 2018, in support of setting a minimum wage and equal pay for women.

State lawmakers are again trying to set a minimum wage in Louisiana, for the first time ever, that is higher than the federal rate, but the proposal to ultimately increase minimum hourly pay to $8.50 faces steep opposition as it advances in the State Capitol.

Senate Bill 162 and Senate Bill 252 both won approval in the Senate Labor Committee on Thursday in the latest attempt to set up a path toward the first minimum wage hike for Louisiana workers since Congress adopted the current $7.25 an hour nearly a decade ago.

"There are parents with minimum wage jobs attempting to raise families," said State Sen. Troy Carter, a New Orleans Democrat and author of both bills. "I don't know how they do it. They deserve our help."

SB162 would automatically increase the minimum wage to $8 an hour in 2019 and $8.50 an hour in 2020, while SB252 would allow voters to decide whether the minimum wage should be increased to those levels. Both advanced on party line votes, with four Democrats in favor and three Republicans against.

"At a minimum we should let the people decide," Carter said of his decision to include the voter-driven amendment as an alternative.

Attempts to increase the minimum wage last year and the year before had to be vetted by a second committee, where the bills ultimately died before advancing to 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 go before the GOP-controlled House before the session ends on June 4 or earlier.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who campaigned on advocating a minimum wage increase, testified in favor of the legislation during Thursday's hearing, as he has the past two years.

Edwards said he recently was asked why he hasn't stopped pushing the minimum wage and equal pay issues that have failed to gain traction in the Capitol chambers, despite being among his priority items.

"I'm committed to this," he said. "I'm never going to give up until we actually do it. Once we do it, we will go on to something else."

The minimum wage went up in 18 other states at the start of 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The previous year, 19 states saw minimum wage hikes.

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Louisiana is one of five remaining states that automatically default to the federal level because they have never adopted their own state minimum wage laws.

Edwards said he believes that Congress has not acted on the minimum wage in nearly a decade because it wants the states to address to their own circumstances.

"What they're saying is we're going to leave this to the states, so it's time for us to act," Edwards said.

He argued that families trying to make ends meet have seen the cost of groceries and other living expenses go up.

"Seven dollars and a quarter an hour – I just want you to think in your mind what seven dollars and a quarter buys," he said. "It's truly offensive and we ought to do better."

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, listed off expenses that she said have gone up for her just this month.

"I'm infuriated that we keep having to have this conversation," she said

The minimum wage hike proposals are opposed by influential business interest groups, including the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Chemical Association, the Homebuilder Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. None took the stand to testify against the idea on Thursday, but all submitted red cards that signified their opposition.

The same Senate panel also advanced legislation meant to address pay disparities between men and women – another of Edwards' priorities that he testified in favor of.

Senate Bill 117 would require any company that contracts with the state to comply with the state's Equal Pay Law. Senate Bill 149 would promote wage transparency so workers know how their pay compares to others.

The bills, both sponsored by Democratic Sen. J.P. Morrell, of New Orleans, now advance to the Senate floor for consideration.

"Our taxpayers support and expect us to support equal pay," Morrell said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.