Political Horizons: Increase in minimum wage battle coming up

State Rep. Herbert B. Dixon says he doesn’t usually tilt at windmills.

And he acknowledges that’s a fair description of his coming push to enact a minimum wage — for $9 an hour — in a Legislature that heels to the business community much the same way as a puppy does to the person who feeds it regularly.

“I really don’t offer legislation unless I think it has a realistic chance of passing,” said the Alexandria Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations. “It is something we need to do. I know I’m going to be right in the teeth with the usual philosophy that it’s going to hurt our business growth.”

Louisiana is one of five states that has no minimum wage but generally follows the national law, which currently puts the wage at $7.25 per hour. A $9 minimum, instead of $10.10 being sought on the federal level, would be easier to pass in Louisiana, Dixon said.

Dixon expects the business community to say increased costs will hurt business and lead to unemployment.

“That’s par for the course; those arguments that have been raised since the ’30s, and there’s going to be no difference now,” Dixon said. “We in the Legislature represent the business community. We also represent regular people trying to put on the food on the table.”

At any rate, the issue should get a hearing, if for no other reason than that Dixon controls the agenda in the committee most likely to consider such legislation.

On the other side of that debate likely will be the committee’s vice chairman, state Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond.

He said the increased costs on businesses would diminish hiring at a time when the economy is recovering from a deep recession. “I’m not sure that’s the right way to move us out of where we’ve been economically,” Broadwater said.

Dixon wasn’t totally alone when he set out to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far. Thirteen states raised their minimum wage on New Year’s Day.

In late December, the Monroe City Council voted to establish a $10 per hour minimum wage, only to face-plant on the Louisiana Legislature’s pronouncement: Local governments are banned from setting their own minimum wage.

Nationally, the Democratic Party held a series of strategy sessions to coordinate an effort to raise the minimum wage, The New York Times reported in late December. Increasing the minimum wage will become a Democratic “wedge” issue, much like enacting public school vouchers and scuttling the Affordable Care Act have been for Republicans. The state Democratic State Central Committee plans to discuss the issue in February, said Kirstin Alvanitakis, the party’s spokeswoman.

Carrie Wooten, of Louisiana Progress, a Baton Rouge group that does policy research and advocates increasing the minimum wage, says the debate probably will break along party lines. “There’s a partisan reality to a lot of what happens in Louisiana that is based in ideology and not necessarily what is best for the people,” she said.

About two-thirds of workers making minimum wage are women — fewer than 10 percent are teenagers as is often argued — and more than a third of the single-mother families live in poverty, Wooten said. About 500,000 Louisiana residents would be immediately impacted by an increase.

It’d be like giving a raise to the state’s lowest paid workers, said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a Baton Rouge-based group that monitors how state government spending affects low and moderate-income families.

Since minimum wage employees — mostly in low-skill jobs like retail sales and nursing home care — live paycheck to paycheck, that additional money would be poured back into the economy. “If you raised the pay for these workers, it would pay immediate dividends for the whole economy,” Moller said.

“I don’t think it’s fair to presume that an individual in that situation is hostage to it,” said Jim Patterson, who is director of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry employee relations council. Improving training opportunities to help the individual find a better job with higher pay is a better strategy than simply raising the minimum wage.

Training is the workforce issue on which LABI will focus its legislative efforts, Patterson said. The Baton Rouge-based business lobbyists are reviewing existing programs for ways better serve the business community, he said.

While the business community may not like the idea, workers may be more appreciative of the pay raise. Dozens of polls taken around the country on the issue show support for a higher minimum wage across party lines and demographic divides.

“There’s no reason to suspect that isn’t true in Louisiana,” Moller said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.