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The fight to raise the state's minimum wage pursued a higher profile Tuesday, as labor organizers and faith leaders converged on the State Fair to turn up pressure on legislators to raise the base wage to $9.50 an hour.
They drew a surprise ally when DFL Gov. Mark Dayton swung by the AFL-CIO pavilion in the sweltering heat to lend his support.
"I believe the minimum wage should be at a level so that someone working full time can support a family of four above the poverty level and get more skills and more experience," said Dayton, who had come to the fair to attend a veterans' event in the morning. "If we are underpaying people, we the taxpayers are making up the difference."
Labor leaders and many DFLers pushed for a wage hike in the last legislative session, but fell short in the closing hours. Unable to reach agreement on how high to raise the minimum, the DFL-controlled House and Senate took no action.
Now supporters say that working-class Minnesotans need to remind lawmakers of their unfinished business.
"It is simply wrong to pay poverty wages to someone who works hard for 40 hours a week or even more," said Shar Knutson, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.
Dayton said the minimum wage in Minnesota should be high enough for full-time workers to support themselves and their families. Too low a wage can force people onto public assistance, which becomes a burden on state budgets.
Republican legislators say their opposition is unchanged, signaling an issue that could turn bitter next session, in what will be an election year.
"When you raise the minimum wage, you raise labor costs that lead to one of several things: Raising prices on goods and services, reducing hours for staff, or layoffs for workers," said Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, the ranking Republican on the Senate Jobs, Agriculture, and Rural Development Committee. "After hours are reduced and prices go up, hardworking Minnesotans won't be able to buy the same groceries or clothes or dine out as they did before the minimum-wage increase."
At $6.15 an hour for large employers, Minnesota is one of few states with a base wage lower than the federal minimum of $7.25. However, most Minnesota employers are required to meet the federal minimum wage. About 93,000 Minnesotans earn at or below the federal minimum wage, according to state data.
Business groups, particularly in the grocery and retail industry, have fought hard against a higher minimum wage. The argument is particularly intense in border communities, where companies are competing against businesses in neighboring states that sometimes have lower taxes and lower prices.
"The honest solution to that problem is to grow jobs with higher take-home pay in Minnesota," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. "Unfortunately, Governor Dayton and Democratic majorities' policies are discouraging job growth in Minnesota … Republicans are committed to building a healthier economy where Minnesota businesses compete for good employees by offering higher wages."
The issue has been vexing for Democrats, who control the governor's office and both chambers in the Legislature. Senate Democratic leaders said they could not approve the $9.50 an hour by 2015 that House DFLers passed, in part over concerns about border communities and the pressure it could place on rural nursing homes already under financial duress. The Senate's final proposal was more modest, a gradual increase to $7.75.
Senate Democrats say raising the minimum wage is at the top of their to-do list. "It's a strong priority in the Senate for the coming year," said Amos Briggs, a Senate DFL spokesman.
Minnesotans living on minimum wage pleaded with state officials to raise the wage.
Jessica English, who was part of Tuesday's event, held lower-end retail and fast-food jobs for 15 years. Sometimes, she said, there was so little money left after bills that she had enough food to feed only her children. English said that while they ate, she would take a shower and listen to music, so she wouldn't smell the food.
Minneapolis- St. Paul International Airport worker Abdi Ali, who also participated in the call for higher wages, said he doesn't want to become a burden for the state.
"Sometimes I cannot pay my rent or my other bills," Ali said. "I don't want to have to ask the state to pay my health insurance or [for] low-income housing."
State Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley DFLer and a lead advocate for a higher minimum wage, said there is no solid evidence that a higher minimum wage reshuffles the local economy. In fact, he said, higher wages get poured back right back into the community, as workers buy groceries, clothing and other essentials.
He hopes for a breakthrough next year.
"It took a little more work than we were expecting, so hopefully we can do it in 2014," Winkler said.