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Mitchell: More States Passing Own Minimum Wage Laws

As with many public policies, the idea of a government-set minimum wage started small.
It was 1938 when federal law first required private employers to pay at least 25 cents per hour. Not every worker. Just those engaged in interstate commerce.
Things have changed.
Specifically, while Congress has been stalled, more and more states have gotten into the game.
When the new year arrives in a few weeks, the minimum wage will rise in nine states due to changes already made in those states’ laws. Last week, five more states held votes related to state minimums. Voters nodded their approval in each and every one.
From a philosophical viewpoint, most interesting was Arkansas.
Setting a minimum wage is considered progressive or liberal. Some people still label such mandates as socialist or communist (as were many “New Deal” ideas that often wound up before to the Supreme Court in the 1930s). To say the least, minimum wage laws are in no way part of the conservative agenda.
Yet in Arkansas, on the same day voters dumped incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, in favor of super-conservative U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, they approved raising the state minimum wage above the federal minimum for the first time ever.
Arkansans voted strongly “red” and strongly “blue” on the same ballot.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and has been since July 2009.
The District of Columbia is at $9.50 per hour and boasts the maximum minimum for the time being. But 23 states have minimum wage laws requiring that most workers be paid more than the federal minimum.
In the voting last week, Arkansans increased the minimum to $8.50 by 2017. Two other often-red states, South Dakota and Nebraska, voted for increases to $8.50 and $9 in coming months. Alaska, a mostly blue state, will be at $9.75 in 2016. Illinois voters cast advisory ballots suggesting their lawmakers pass a minimum wage increase.
In Mississippi, memory says that state minimum wage bills have been filed, but not one has ever made it so far as a floor debate or even a serious discussion. Although traditionally led by legislators who claim they are “for the people,” rarely have such claims resulted in any protections or benefits for wage earners. Instead, big business continues to carry the day in the halls of the Legislature. The fear that wage minimums reduce jobs prevails.
Only four other states have this total aversion to minimum wage — our neighbors Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama and our cousin South Carolina. Other states — those without minimums higher than the federal government — have laws essentially ratifying the federal minimum and applying it to employers doing business on their turf.
Now the economic argument to have a minimum wage is one thing. It puts more jingle in the pockets of consumers and can stir up economic activity.
At the other end, capitalism in its purist form says the marketplace should control, that no government should have any voice in any financial arrangement between employers and employees.
But this topic has many other aspects, including political.
In several states, minimum wage matters have been steered onto ballots as “wedge issues.” The idea is to bring to polling places those who have strong feelings about a topic and who may not have strong feelings about political candidates. While they’re there, the thinking goes, they’ll add a checkmark for the candidates they think most likely to support their positions.
For example, abortion-related matters were on several state ballots last week and on Mississippi ballots in 2011. The notion was that voters who wanted more laws against abortion would take the opportunity to add limits and, while they were at it, elect more conservatives.
It didn’t work out that way in Mississippi. Proposition 26 to limit abortions failed in even though the same election saw more conservatives — and more conservative conservatives — put into office.
Similarly, more liberal voters might have been thinking strategically — that adding a minimum wage provision to ballots would bring out more voters who would want the pay hikes and, while they were at it, vote for Democrats.
It didn’t work out that way in Arkansas or the other states last week, either. A lot of really conservative voters cast their ballots in favor of government-forced boosts in minimum pay.
By the way, President Obama still favors an increase to $10.10 as the federal minimum. The people may favor this.
But they elected people who don’t.
It never gets boring.
Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2013Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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