Stage set for political brawls over minimum wage in 2014

More than 10 states to see increases on Jan. 1 amid brewing election-year fight over hourly-wage hikes

2013 saw a spate of walkouts by fast-food workers demanding higher wages.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Minimum wages are set to increase in 11 states next year, amid a national debate over minimum wage that could have an impact on upcoming elections.

The hikes are generally just a few cents, but some workers will see relatively significant increases, although nothing like the $15 an hour some labor activists have pushed for throughout this year. Most of the hikes apply to workers who earn tips in addition to an hourly wage, which is often much less than the minimum wage in that state. The federal minimum stands at $7.25 an hour.

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, the states where wages will go up Jan. 1 include Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Workers in San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., as well as Albuquerque, N.M., will also see modest raises.

California plans to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $9 an hour on July 1. New York will raise its minimum wage to $8 an hour from $7.25 on Dec. 31, for workers who don't receive tips.

Advocates of a $15 minimum wage in the town of SeaTac, Wash., a Seattle suburb, faced a setback Friday when a judge ruled the voter-approved hike couldn't apply to 4,700 airport workers because the aviation hub is owned by the Port of Seattle, a separate government entity. The $15 minimum will, however, apply to 1,600 workers at SeaTac hotels, rental car agencies and parking lots.

Washington state's hourly minimum wage is already higher than any other state's, and is set to rise by 13 cents to $9.32 an hour in January, Reuters reported. The new wage in the city of SeaTac will be among the nation's highest, just below a $15.38 rate mandated for city workers and contractors in Sonoma, Calif.

Raising the minimum wage has become a cause celebre for labor activists and liberal economists this year, calling for hikes for fast food workers and others paid the minimum wage. The groups argue that $7.25 an hour is impossible to live on.

Conservative economists counter by saying hikes to minimum wages would hamper employment opportunities for the young, cut revenues for businesses and slow job growth. 

2014 races

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As campaigns for 2014 gubernatorial races across the nation get off the ground, the issue of minimum-wage increases has gotten even more attention. Democrats vying to challenge a slew of Republican governors, particularly those seeking re-election in states that President Barack Obama won in 2012, have already started championing the cause.

Polls say it's publicly popular, it revives the message of economic inequality that Obama wielded effectively last year, and it comes wrapped in a broader jobs and economic message that touches on the top priority of many voting Americans.

In Pennsylvania, championing a minimum wage increase is already popular among the big field of Democrats vying to challenge the re-election bid of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Now, Katie McGinty, a onetime environmental policy adviser to the Clinton White House and Corbett's Democratic predecessor, is distinguishing herself by telling audiences and potential donors that she was the first Democrat in the Pennsylvania field to make it an issue.

"This is core for me," McGinty said. "I think it is fundamentally true across the centuries that one of the things that can really bring a nation down is the increasing chasm in terms of income."

Thus far, the Republicans whom Democrats view as most vulnerable aren't changing their minds and supporting it.

In addition to Corbett, the Democrats' list of most vulnerable includes Maine's Paul LePage, Michigan's Rick Snyder and Wisconsin's Scott Walker.

Florida's Rick Scott and Ohio's John Kasich might be insulated because their states' laws boost minimum wage with inflation and Iowa's Terry Branstad, New Mexico's Susanna Martinez and Nevada's Brian Sandoval aren't viewed as sufficiently endangered.

All of those governors won a first term in the national Republican sweep of 2010, and most have had strong Republican representation in their legislatures to support them.

But LePage was tasked with facing a Democratic-controlled legislature, and in July he vetoed a bill to incrementally raise the state's minimum wage.

For his likely Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, increasing the minimum wage is an issue the one-time paper mill worker from northern Maine discusses often, said campaign adviser David Farmer.

"He is closely aligned with working- and middle-class families," Farmer said. "He's not a millionaire."

Still, it would not be unheard of for a Republican to advocate a minimum wage increase. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who leads the Republican Governors Association, and New Mexico's Martinez each vetoed their legislature's minimum wage bill but not without making a counteroffer of a more modest increase.

Republican governors are focused on lightening tax and regulatory burdens for businesses to improve wages, said Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. But he also seemed to acknowledge the occasional political necessity for Republicans to embrace a minimum wage increase.

"It's complicated because there are some states that a minimum wage increase could be more helpful and useful than other states," Thompson said in an email.

For Democrats, campaign advisers and strategists say there's no mandate from national party leaders to wield the issue as a weapon next year. But there's no denying it's popular and salient to the political battlefield, said Danny Kanner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.

"The defining issue in every single one of these races is who is fighting for the middle class," he said.

Political caution

Democrats are pairing their advocacy of a minimum wage increase with criticism of cuts to corporate tax rates, public pensions or education aid that Republican governors pushed through. They also contend that it'll revive the economy by flushing more money into the hands of consumers who spend it and reduce reliance on food stamps or other government programs for the poor.

If vulnerable Republicans aren't budging on the issue, neither are the big-business groups that tend to back them. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warns that small employers will have the hardest time absorbing higher labor costs, while the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) warned of job losses.

"We're not going to waver," said NFIB spokeswoman Jean Card. "It's the kind of thing that sounds good, but rarely are polling questions backed up with the kind of economic downside that's inevitable."

For Democrats, Obama got the ball rolling on the issue by calling for an increase in his February budget speech, and union-organized demonstrations in front of profitable mega-chains such as Walmart and McDonald's have kept it in the public eye.

And it's not only a popular issue with the labor unions that often provide money and volunteers to help power Democrats' campaigns — the public warmly embraces it, too.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey this month found that more than six in 10 voting-age adults said they would support an increase of the federal minimum wage from $7.25, where it was last raised in 2009, to $10.10 an hour.

Support to raise it to $12.50 fell to about four in 10 and fewer than three in 10 supported an increase to $15 an hour. A CBS News poll in November found that just one in four would like the federal minimum wage to remain at $7.25.

Some Democrats may nevertheless approach the issue with caution.

Mary Burke, who is expected to win the Democratic nomination to challenge Wisconsin's Walker, said she supports legislation there to increase the minimum wage by a relatively modest 35 cents an hour to $7.60.

Beyond that, the former state commerce secretary and daughter of Trek Bicycle's founder said a gradual and fair increase in the minimum wage could avoid economic harm. While she wasn't prepared to say what that is, the subject will be prominent in her campaign, Burke said.

"This race is going to be about jobs and people being able to support themselves," Burke said, "and that is an important way we can help more people move toward economic independence."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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