The new DFL majority at the Legislature is pushing for something that has long eluded Minnesota's lowest-paid workers: an increase in the state's minimum wage.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Thursday that Minnesota's minimum of $6.15 an hour makes it an outlier among states and is well behind the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. He said the Senate will push for $7.50 an hour and index the rate to inflation, which would provide automatic increases in coming years.
The state's minimum wage has not changed since 2005. Minnesota is now one of only four states across the country to offer a minimum wage lower than the federal standard. Most low-wage workers in the state make the federal minimum, but some jobs are exempt and can pay as little as $5.25 an hour for smaller businesses.
"Frankly, it's a bit embarrassing," said Bakk, who puts the wage increase near the top of the caucus to-do list in the first year back in the majority. "Clearly we're behind."
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who introduced the Senate bill, said that "whether it's a teenager in a part-time job or a low-income worker struggling to stretch each paycheck, putting money in the pockets of minimum-wage workers is good for the economy. The money is going to be spent in local businesses, on job training courses and rent."
A House bill would set the minimum wage at $9.35. House Speaker Paul Thissen said the House also expects to advance minimum-wage legislation, but not necessarily the bill put in play Thursday.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who has long supported a higher minimum wage, has not yet reviewed the Senate proposal, but "the governor believes we want to make work pay for Minnesota families," spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said.
But the Senate's minimum- wage proposal was greeted warily, not just by Republicans and some Minnesota employers, but by some longtime advocates for a higher minimum wage.
"It's disappointing," said Kevin Ristau, education director for the St. Paul-based Jobs Now Coalition, which advocates on behalf of minimum-wage earners.
While any attention cast on the issue is good, Ristau pointed out that a 25-cent increase over the federal minimum wage would barely make a dent in the difficulties of families struggling to survive on that.
Some 93,000 Minnesotans -- about 6 percent of the workforce -- earn the state or federal minimum wage, according to a study by the Department of Labor and Industry. Adjusted for inflation, minimum-wage workers today actually earn less than they did in 1970, when they earned the equivalent of $8.36 now.
"I am not against raising the standards of people who are making minimum wage ... We are in favor of everyone living a good life," said Mahendra Nath, CEO of Nath Companies, which employs many minimum-wage workers at its properties, which include hotels, restaurants and fast-food outlets like local Denny's and Burger King franchises.
But Nash said raising the minimum wage "will impact our bottom line. I think the inclination would be to increase the productivity and have the same amount of work being done by [fewer] people. We might have to reduce the number of hours."
No GOP co-sponsors
So far, there are no Republican co-sponsors for the minimum-wage bill. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he is concerned about the bill's long-term costs.
"I think there have been questions raised about the wisdom of minimum-wage policies, and who does that really help," Hann said.
The Senate's debut legislation included a raft of issues that would have foundered under the previous Republican majority, including a state-funded, all-day kindergarten option in every school district.
The state now funds half-day programming. About 49 percent of kindergartners are in all-day programs, but the second half of the day is paid by the districts or, in some cases, by parents through fees.
Participation in all-day kindergarten would remain voluntary. Bakk estimates that if every district chose it, the cost to the state would be about $170 million per year.
Bakk is pushing for a statutory change that would make it harder for future Legislatures to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. His bill would require a 60 percent majority in the Legislature to pass such amendments and require the House and Senate to vote on them in different years.
"I hope that we never have to go through another election like that, where we have purely partisan amendments on the ballot, where the Constitution is used as a way to get around a governor who didn't agree with the Legislature," Bakk said, referring to the marriage and voter ID amendments.
Staff writer James Ragsdale and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049