After years of seeing efforts to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage crash and burn in the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature, state Rep. Royce Duplessis decided to take a different tact this session, with legislation that would allow locals to set their own wage floors.
Backed by a host of labor and nonprofit groups comprising the “Unleash Local” coalition, Duplessis’ bill would also allow parishes and municipalities to add paid leave requirements. It won the backing of the New Orleans City Council and represents a fresh proposition on the minimum wage issue in Louisiana.
But barely three hours into the legislative session that began Monday, House Republicans made a parliamentary move that could make that effort significantly more difficult.
State Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, led an effort to send the bill to a different committee from the one it is destined for. The new committee appears more hostile to the bill, though Miguez insists he wanted to divert it to the Labor Committee he sits on because it better fits the subject matter.
Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat, said he “absolutely” thinks the move was a political one.
“It's not that it won't get a fair hearing in Labor,” Duplessis said. “I'm fully prepared to have that debate. But there are certain political realities. There was a reason that was done."
The legislation, House Bill 422, was initially destined to go before the House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs for its first hearing in the legislative process. Duplessis said that would have made sense, given the bill establishes new rights for cities.
Bills are provisionally referred to committees by the House clerk, and the House speaker typically follows that referral unless a lawmaker make a motion to change it and wins support from the rest of the body.
But the House ultimately voted 37-27, mostly along party lines, to send the bill to the Labor Committee, which has killed minimum wage bills in the past.
The legislation is not the only new strategy for getting minimum wage workers a raise this year. Gov. John Bel Edwards this session is pushing to change the state’s constitution to establish a $9 an hour minimum wage, something that would require a vote of the people. It would also require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.
Supporters say the fight is far from over for the legislation to allow cities to establish their own wage and paid leave laws.
The Unleash Local coalition, which includes the AFL-CIO, Step Up Louisiana and several other labor unions and nonprofits, rallied Friday night in favor of allowing New Orleans to set its own minimum wage outside City Hall on Friday evening.
“It’s kind of like being in a bad relationship, where one person doesn’t want to do right by the other person but doesn’t want to let that person go,” Duplessis told the rally crowd. “You see the state hasn’t been willing to do right by the cities because the state is refusing to raise the minimum wage.”
The bill is a different proposal from the types of statewide minimum wage bills pushed by the governor in each of the three years he’s been in office, efforts that have failed at the hands of business groups and Republican lawmakers.
If the bill stays in the Labor Committee, though, Matt Wood, state policy director for the labor union Communications Workers of America said it will be a “tough fight.”
“Should this bill not be successful, this is going to roll into the state elections, who’s with us and who wasn’t,” Wood said. “We’re going to take this message after the session is over into elections, and it’s going to have an impact.”
Despite polling that shows Louisiana voters are widely supportive of establishing a state minimum wage higher than the current $7.25 an hour federal standard, the Legislature has in recent years ended the governor’s quest for a relatively small bump to $8.50 an hour.
“He’s made the same modest request for the past three years and has gotten zero traction,” Duplessis said. “If we’re not interested in just making a blanket increase, maybe we can give cities the ability to make the decision if they so choose.”
Although Edwards’ bill would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, Duplessis’ would require only a simple majority.
A poll by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab that was released last week found 81 percent of Louisianians support a $8.50 minimum wage. Nearly 60 percent even support a minimum wage of $15 an hour, including 85 percent of Democrats, 44 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of independents. Edwards cited the results in touting his minimum wage bill, SB155 by state Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans.
Bernie Pinsonat, a longtime pollster who works with many Republican lawmakers and some Democrats, thinks the poll doesn’t necessarily mean Republicans are particularly vulnerable on the issue from an election standpoint. Business groups would likely color the debate with warnings of jobs losses and increased automation, he said, ideas that would be potent in the eyes of Republican voters.
“I don’t know anyone who is going to get beat on that question,” Pinsonat said.
Business groups that oppose raising the minimum wage are also prolific donors to lawmakers’ campaigns in the state, another factor influencing the debate.
Both Edwards' and Duplessis’ proposals are likely to face the type of resistance from business groups that have helped persuade lawmakers to keep the status quo in Louisiana, which is one of a handful of states without a statewide minimum wage.
However, advocates for higher minimum wage saw some potential momentum this year after voters in Missouri and Arkansas approved raising their respective minimum wages to $12 and $11 an hour. Eighteen states hiked their minimum wages in 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Plus, Duplessis’ bill was a new strategy, offering up what he called a “conservative” argument: “Local knows best.”
“I always thought that was a conservative principle,” he said. “But I guess in this instance, it doesn’t appear to be, because certain elected (officials) in our state would rather keep that at the state level.”
Miguez, who is part of a more conservative faction in the state House of Representatives, said that’s not a conservative principle “in all cases.” New Orleans, which would be the city perhaps most likely to pass a minimum wage hike if Duplessis’ bill passes, is one of the state’s largest economic drivers, and Miguez argues raising the minimum wage would lead to job losses.
He also said the bill would cause businesses, like restaurants that have locations in multiple cities, to “play by different rules.”
“I believe if you let capitalism work, it’ll breed hunger inside of people’s stomachs to go out there and do better for themselves,” Miguez said, adding the state has a “bad business climate” and the bill would worsen that issue.
Asked about Duplessis’ bill recently, Edwards said he’s looking at the proposal but would “much rather” do a statewide increase. He said $9 an hour is “achievable.”
"Nine dollars is a modest but meaningful increase,” he said. “I just think that's the way to go. I'm not going to negotiate against myself by saying I prefer another alternative."