Sunday, December 24, 2006
Governor Henry on Minimum Wage
Thanks to Arnold Hamilton at the Oklahoma Observer for posting his interview with Governor Henry on the Observer's new website. I'm looking forward to a lot of discussion and action in 2007 on the minimum wage issue. Democratic activists and some legislators laid a strong foundation for this in 2006 and I expect it will be a priority for many Democrats in the next session. I remember listening to Lt. Governor Elect Jari Askins at a RAISE Oklahoma rally on the capitol steps as she supported this initiative to raise the minimum wage in Oklahoma.)
Henry: Consensus Needed
On Minimum Wage Hike
By Arnold Hamilton
If the new Congress fails to act, Oklahoma should consider joining more than two-dozen states – including neighbors Arkansas, Missouri and Colorado – in increasing the minimum wage, Gov. Brad Henry says.
The Democratic governor didn’t suggest a specific amount, but thinks state leaders, working in concert with organized labor and business, could arrive at a figure that doesn’t put Oklahoma at a competitive disadvantage regionally.
“I certainly believe that working families in Oklahoma need to make more than the federal minimum wage,” Henry said in a wide-ranging, pre-Christmas interview with The Observer.
“It’s certainly an issue that’s worthy of discussion. I think we have to be careful. Obviously, if Oklahoma enacts a higher minimum wage in an island – with other states around us who have not acted – it could potentially cause some loss of business.
“We need to take all that into account before we just jump out and act.”
The federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour hasn’t changed since 1997, but in recent years, 29 states and the District of Columbia have acted to help the working poor, immediately hiking the minimum to between $5.85 an hour in West Virginia and $7.63 in Washington.
Some states already have ordered future increases, as well. California, for example, is raising the minimum wage over three years – to $6.75 an hour in 2006, $7.50 in January 2007 and $8.00 in January 2008.
In Oklahoma, state Rep. Richard Morrissette, an Oklahoma City Democrat, has worked tirelessly, but unsuccessfully in recent years to win legislative approval of a minimum wage hike.
And an Oklahoma group seeking to raise the minimum wage $1 an hour failed in 2006 to secure enough signatures on an initiative petition to bring the proposal to a statewide vote.
“The best policy in my view is to have a national minimum wage, and one that keeps track with inflation, however you want to index that,” said Gov. Henry, who recently won landslide re-election to a second term.
“The problem again has been that Congress has not acted. So, like health care, like immigration, like so many other issues, they’ve devolved down to the states. I don’t know that the states can as effectively address these issues.”
Nationally, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, says a minimum wage hike is one of several key proposals the new Democratic majority will attempt to pass in the first 100 hours of the 2007 Congress.
Another major stumbling block apparently has been removed: President Bush now says he supports a $2.10 per hour boost, phased-in over two years.
But he offers a caveat: “I believe we should do it in a way that does not punish the millions of small businesses that are creating most of the new jobs in our country. So I support pairing it with targeted tax and regulatory relief to help those small businesses stay competitive and to help keep our economy growing.”
Morrissette says he doubts the Congress and President can come to an agreement on the issue, citing three reasons:
First, the President likely will threaten to veto anything that doesn’t include significant business tax breaks, something Democrats may be unwilling to swallow.
Second, the Democratic majority in both houses may be too narrow to forge a consensus on the issue.
Third, House Republicans may not be in a mood – given their new minority status – to work with Democrats on much of anything.
“It’s not going to get done anytime soon in Washington,” Morrissette said. “Anybody who thinks so is kidding themselves.”
If he is correct, it will be up to the governor and state lawmakers to address – or ignore – the issue.
Morrissette says he plans to offer a 2007 version that would increase the minimum wage immediately to $6.50 an hour, with further hikes of up to $7.15 or $7.35 phased-in “during a reasonable period of time, whatever that is.”
His 2006 plan – a simple $1 per hour jump – died in committee on a 4-3 straight-party vote.
There are rumblings, however, that legislative Republicans – under pressure from churches and party moderates – may introduce their own, less aggressive version this year, perhaps tied to the Consumer Price Index or other economic indicators.
One reason elected officials in Washington and Oklahoma City cannot ignore the issue: Americans are adamant something must be done. A Pew Research Center poll last spring, for example, found 83 percent favor a $2 increase to $7.15 an hour.
Even more striking: support is almost universal. Seventy-two percent of Republicans, 91% of Democrats and 87% of independents endorse it. It’s also backed by 91% of those earning below $20,000 a year and 76% of those earning more than $75,000. And it’s strongly favored by all age groups, from 87% among 18-29 year olds to 78% among seniors [65-plus].
Gov. Henry, meanwhile, said he thinks most of Oklahoma’s working families already earn more than the federal minimum wage, but numerous studies underscore the state’s struggle to reduce poverty.
A 2005 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, for example, ranked Oklahoma’s hunger problem the nation’s worst.
Nationally, the Economic Policy Institute estimates 14.9 million workers would receive a salary increase if the minimum wage were raised to $7.25 an hour by 2008.
In Oklahoma, Morrissette says, between 16,000 and 32,000 Oklahomans earn minimum wage, depending on the survey. Most are adults – minority women, actually – not teen-agers, as some claim.
“This is a moral issue,” says Morrissette. “It’s immoral to pay people subservient wages.”
Three of Oklahoma’s neighbors didn’t wait for Congress to act on the minimum wage issue.
With the support of conservative Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, Arkansas raised the minimum wage to $6.25 an hour. Missouri [$6.50 an hour] and Colorado [$6.85] also ordered increases – but took the additional step of linking future hikes to cost-of-living indexes.
Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico have taken no action on the issue, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“I would certainly point to Arkansas, which just recently increased its minimum wage by working together with business and labor, coming up with a compromise that both business management and labor management signed off on,” Henry said.
“We could certainly pursue that type of course of action in Oklahoma. And if we’re going to seriously pursue a minimum wage increase, I think the best approach is to bring everybody to the table, both parties to the table, and try to build a consensus around an issue that everybody can live with.”