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Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks during an Urban Congress on African American Males event Saturday, April 13, 2019.

You never know until people go to the polls, but there are lots of reasons to believe that Louisiana voters would give a thumbs-up to a slightly higher minimum wage.

One is that Gov. John Bel Edwards campaigned on the proposal in 2015 and won quite handily, particularly given that he’s a Democrat in a generally Republican state. Edwards has always contended that certain stances could turn off a critical mass of conservative Louisiana voters, specifically opposition to gun rights and support for abortion rights, and he may well be right. The idea of paying low-wage employees a little more fairly for a day’s work, though, certainly wasn’t a deal killer.

Another is that, when other conservative states have put the idea to the people, they’ve generally supported higher base wages. Just last fall, 62 percent of voters in Missouri backed a gradual minimum wage increase from $7.85 to $12 an hour. In Arkansas, 68 percent OK'd increasing the minimum wage from $8.50 to $11 over three years.

That puts these states in line with many others. Congress has basically abdicated its once-bipartisan commitment to periodically increasing the minimum wage to account for higher costs of living, but states around the country have responded by doing it themselves. More than half the states now have minimum wages that exceed the long-stalled federal level of $7.25 an hour.

A third piece of evidence that there’s widespread support for an increase in Louisiana came from a recent LSU poll. The new Louisiana Survey, conducted by the Manship School’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, found that 81 percent back a minimum wage of $8.50 an hour, which has been Edwards’ goal for the past several years, with even Republicans supporting this level by a wide margin. A much steeper increase to $15 an hour still garnered 59 percent support.

So with all that obvious support, will Louisiana finally take the plunge?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Edwards is back this year again with a proposal, and it’s a little different this time. Instead of asking lawmakers to raise the state’s base wage to $8.50 over two years, he’s asking them to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot raising it to $9.

That way, he argues, legislators wouldn’t have to alienate their business lobby supporters by voting for it. They’d only be allowing the people to decide. Who could be against that?

“Every year, I stand here and make the case for why we should increase our minimum wage and pass equal pay legislation. And every year that goes by without action, we are falling further and further behind,” Edwards said as he opened the legislative session last week. “I challenge everyone in this room to look at your family’s finances and try to imagine making it on $7.25 an hour. For thousands of Louisianans, that is their reality.”

“Even if you have in the past not supported a minimum wage for our workers, give the people of this state a right to decide,” he said.

It’s a clever strategy, but one that presents its own challenges. The biggest is that it raises the bar needed for approval, from a majority in each house to two-thirds.

Another is that polls, even those as lopsided as LSU’s, don’t measure how much voters care about an issue. While most people support a higher wage, the intensity is still likely to be with the opposition, those well-heeled business groups that haunt the Capitol hallways and that will make the tenuous claim that slightly higher minimum wages kill jobs.

A third is that there are all sorts of ways for legislators to make an issue go away without taking unpopular positions. One appeared to happen last week on a related measure, a bill by state Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, that would allow cities to raise their own minimum wages. Conservative House members got together and routed the bill to an unfriendly committee, where it may well die without an up-or-down House vote.

Still, good for Edwards for at least trying to hold lawmakers accountable to the public will in an election year.

If the constitutional amendment bill doesn’t pass with so much evidence pointing to widespread support, it would be entirely reasonable to ask why the people’s elected representatives don’t want to give them a say.

And this would be an even better question: Just who are those lawmakers representing, anyway?


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.