Tevlin: Minnesota minimum wage hike got lost in the politics

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2013 - 10:54 PM

Over the past several months, groups that represent the working poor have been fighting to test the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats.

After all, these are heady times for those in upper-income brackets. Executive pay is soaring. The Dow Jones average hit a record height on Tuesday.

Surely those who work for minimum wage were going to get a taste of the sugar, a little something more to help them squeeze by while contributing to the economy. One way to do that was to raise the state’s minimum wage, one of the lowest in the country.

Minnesota seemed aligned to do just that, with pro-hike DFLers controlling both chambers and the governor’s office. In fact, at the beginning of the session, the DFL promised that a rise in the minimum wage was a priority. It should have been a slam dunk.

It failed. Dismally.

Or, as Kris Jacobs of the Jobs Now Coalition described the best offer: “Twenty bucks a week is all you’ll get, have a ball.”

To quote an old song, ain’t that a hole in the boat?

The result is that some 357,000 Minnesota workers on the bottom rung of the ladder, those making $7.25 an hour (or less in some cases), won’t get a penny.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 77 percent of those workers are age 20 or older, 25 percent are married and 18 percent are parents. About 137,000 children would have benefitted from the extra income.

Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Eveleth, pushed for raising the minimum wage by trying to live on it for a week early in the session and “was humbled by the experience.” He said he was disappointed that a minimum wage failed, but that it was a trade-off with Republicans.

“We got a bonding bill [instead],” Metsa said. The bill will provide lots of good quality jobs while fixing the State Capitol and infrastructure. Metsa said 70 percent of Minnesotans think the wage should be raised, so he said it will be pushed next year.

“That’s what they said this year,” said Jacobs. “It’s just so depressing.”

Jacobs said Republicans and some DFLers also wanted a cap and freeze on wages for restaurant servers again if there was going to be a general raise. Yep, the old tip credit attack on waiters and waitresses was in play again this year, after the issue torpedoed Tom Emmer’s gubernatorial run against Mark Dayton.

In the end, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the tip credit didn’t break the deal. Winkler, who authored the House bill to push the wage to $9.50, said the Minnesota Senate (including some DFLers) was only willing to come up to $8. House members didn’t want to go below $8.75 because minimum wage increases usually only happen every few years, and they didn’t want to set in stone a rate that wouldn’t make much difference for workers.

“I’d rather be able to come back to fight another day,” Winkler said.

Alexandra Fitzsimmons, Legislative Affairs and Advocacy Director for Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, understands, but still calls the lack of movement “unbelievable.”

Fitzsimmons said they tried to tie the minimum wage bill to new efforts to assist early-childhood development. One recent study showed that a $1,000 difference in income for poor families helped raise reading comprehension for children. That argument will have to wait until next session.

“It will be the top priority,” said Fitzsimmons. “We need to take the message statewide: People can’t live on this wage.”

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