The 2019 Louisiana legislative session that began April 8 probably won’t bring many surprises. This much is certain: Lawmakers will consider two measures supported by big majorities of the public — a modest (really, too modest) raise for public school teachers and a similarly modest hike in the state minimum wage. They should approve both items.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has supported an $8.50 hourly minimum wage for Louisiana in previous sessions. This time he’s aiming for $9 an hour, with a twist — he wants legislators to put the matter to voters in a statewide referendum as a proposed constitutional amendment. Louisiana is one of only five states (all in the Deep South) with no state-adopted minimum wage. Instead, we defer to the federal minimum of $7.25. That rate has not increased since 2009. Arkansas voters recently adopted a $9.25 minimum wage, which will stairstep to $11 per hour in 2021.
For an administration that promised transparency, accountability and “intentionality,” pulling a switcheroo like this with no warning either to residents or the New Orleans City Council smacks of bad faith.
According to a survey released last week by the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, 81 percent of Louisianans support raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. With such lopsided support for the increase (including a majority of Republicans), passage would seem a no-brainer. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), which often has the ear (and the vote) of legislators, is foursquare against Louisiana establishing its own minimum wage. Current state law further forbids any local government from mandating a minimum wage for public-sector employees that is higher than the state wage. House Bill 422 by state Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, would allow larger cities to establish a higher minimum wage, but Edwards has made it clear he wants an across-the-board minimum wage hike put to the voters.
The question is whether Republican lawmakers, who hold a majority in the Louisiana Legislature, are willing to give Democrat Edwards such a big “win” just months before the gubernatorial election, particularly on a popular minimum wage bill that he has championed since taking office in January 2016. A key factor in whether voters will get to make that decision is the fact that proposed constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate before they go to the voters. That’s always a tall order.
Those of us who lived through Katrina remember spending money on garbage bags, not Gucci bags.
On another key economic and political front, the governor’s proposed $1,000-a-year pay hike for public school teachers appears to have bipartisan support. Edwards likewise wants to give school support staff a $500-a-year raise.
Giving teachers a raise, according to the LSU Manship survey, is even more popular than raising the minimum wage. Nine out of 10 Democrats support it, as do eight of 10 Republicans. We hope lawmakers will support both the teacher pay raise and the proposed constitutional amendment to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage.
Many wonder whether Republican lawmakers will let Edwards notch two big wins. As we see it, Republicans could take just as much credit as Edwards if they back both pay raises. The alternative is to have to explain to voters — at election time — why they refused to give teachers and minimum-wage earners the raises they clearly deserve, and which voters overwhelmingly support.