Lawmakers reject minimum wage hike

Consider working eight hours a day for five straight days and pulling in only $340. That’s how Reginald Junior described his reality to the House Labor Committee on Thursday the day lawmakers considered creating a state minimum wage.

“I’ve been working all my life. My question is: ‘Why are you talking about a minimum wage? Why not a living wage?’ ” Junior told the panel. “$347 a week is not enough to take care of my family.”

It was a similar story for Austin Washington, a 28-year-old father of one who said he makes $8 an hour working full time for a temp service but can’t afford a one-bedroom apartment.

Despite those stories of hardship, four attempts made by Democratic lawmakers to raise wages for the working poor all failed. All of them would have set a state minimum wage higher than the $7.25 hourly federal rate.

Raising the minimum wage has become a Democratic Party rallying cry in statehouses around the country, as income equality has emerged as a 2014 election issue.

Democrats say that anyone working 40 hours a week should be paid a wage they can live on. They further argue that a minimum wage increase would lift large segments of the population out of poverty. However, Republican lawmakers and the business community argue that a higher minimum wage would kill jobs.

Thursday’s votes largely fell along party lines, with Democrats in favor of creating a state minimum wage and Republicans against it.

The issue started to pick up traction nationally in late January when President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to call on Congress to do more to ensure the economic security of the middle class by raising the federal minimum wage.

He also called on employers around the country to do what they could to pay their workers more.

Obama later issued an executive order raising the pay for employees of federal contractors.

But the proposals making their way around different state capitols have come under fire from Republicans and business groups, who argue that raising the minimum wage would cause businesses to raise prices and lay off workers.

And on a day when left-leaning Minnesota gave minimum wage earners yearly raises that will push the hourly rate to $9.50 by 2016, Louisiana lawmakers easily squashed a number of similar bills, putting any hopes of creating a state minimum wage into the Senate’s hands.

The bills in the House are essentially dead.

House Bill 356 sponsored by Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria, was the most discussed. It would set a minimum wage of $8.25 beginning on July 1, 2015, raise it to $9 on July 1, 2016, and then allow for it to be adjusted annually on July 1, 2017, based on the Consumer Price Index.

Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a research and advocacy group, said a wage hike is necessary in a state with the third-highest poverty rate in the nation. He added that two-thirds of the businesses that would be affected are large retailers and fast-food chains like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.

“The number of people this would help far outweighs those that would be hurt,” Moller said. “There would be a net positive impact on jobs.”

But Stan Harris, president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, argued that restaurants, retailers and other businesses operate on extremely thin profit margins and can’t handle an increase in wages. “We pay wages based on the market,” he said.

Will Green, a policy director with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which lobbies on behalf of business groups, said the bill would hurt the people it’s designed to help.

“When there is a mandate to raise wages based on factors other than supply and demand,” businesses fire workers or increase the price of their products, Green said.

HB356 failed on a 6-10 vote.

A similar bill, House Bill 382, sponsored by state Rep. Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans, would have created a $10.10 minimum wage next year but failed on a 5-9 vote.

Another Dixon bill, House Bill 589, to let Louisiana voters decide whether to raise the minimum wage, failed on a 6-8 vote.

And House Bill 644, sponsored by state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, which would have let cities set their own minimum wage, failed on a 6-8 vote.