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A Lot of Drama Over $10 an Hour

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Image courtesy of Gavel Alaska twitter feed.
Image courtesy of Gavel Alaska twitter feed.

With one week remaining in the 2014 Alaskan legislature, former Labor Commissioner (1999 – 2002) Ed Flanagan did something he should have known better than to do. He broke decorum and lifted up a hand-written dollar sign – $ – during testimony. The snapshot made its way into just as many headlines as the minimum wage hike initiative he is supporting.

Raising the minimum wage has lately become quite a contentious issue. The concept was first signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 and has proven to be highly popular over the past 76 years.

In 1989, the Bush (41) Administration decided that it was in its best political interest to raise the minimum wage from $3.85 to $4.25. House Speaker Newt Gingrich compromised with the Clinton Administration in 1996 over welfare reform, conceding $5.15 per hour. And lastly, in 2007, we arrived at our current rate of $7.25 per hour under George W. Bush.

USA Today reporter, Pamela M. Prah, writes that state governments are equally responsive, “Since the year began, these states have approved minimum wages that are higher than the current federal level: Connecticut ($10.10), Delaware ($8.25), Maryland ($10.10), Minnesota ($9.25) and West Virginia ($8.75). The District of Columbia raised its rate to $11.50.”

All in all, 21 states and the District of Columbia already have lifted wages above the federal requirement.

The popularity of the issue is so great among city governments a few have chosen to super-cede state standards. Seattle boasts a $15 per hour wage, as opposed to Washington’s $9.32 per hour. Los Angeles is currently considering a similar $15 per hour minimum wage, limited to chain stores and restaurants with annual sales of $50 million or above.

Oklahoma has been pushing back against the national trend. The state’s governor passed legislation on April 14 preventing city governments from defying state authority on the issue, even with 16 percent of its residents using food stamps.

So, what has Flanagan, who currently chairs the Alaskans for A Fair Minimum Wage campaign, sweating?

Republicans in the state legislature attempted to speed a last minute bill through the legislature, implementing their own minimum wage increase of at least $10 per hour by 2015. Less than two weeks after introduction, the legislation had passed the House and awaited action by the Senate, as the clock ran down. The move had Democrats voting against a minimum wage increase.

Throughout the last days of session, it was bizzare-o world in the Alaska State Legislature.

What happened to the oft-repeated conservative talking point threatening that the “minimum wage” kills jobs by increasing labor costs to prohibitive levels? What happened to the libertarian standard of rugged self-reliance that talk-radio personalities advocate? The “I can negotiate my own wage” crowd?

“We don’t really hear that ‘between employer and employee’ argument on this issue — it is more commonly brought up by opponents of unions and union organizing drives,” Flanagan told me.

Our labor economy is different up here. A big focus in other states is on the low wage box stores, but they all pay at least a dollar more than what we propose to raise the minimum wage to here. Our main opponents come from seafood processing plants, tourism, bars and restaurants. [Those businesses] resent the fact that Alaska law doesn’t let them count tips toward their minimum wage obligations, as many states do.

43,000 signatures already placed the issue before the voting public this August, the very same election that decides the fate of Governor Sean Parnell’s 2013 oil tax cuts. Now that the legislature passed its Sunday night deadline, all other ballot initiatives (including the minimum wage increase and pot legalization) have been punted to November’s general election. That, combined with a competitive primary to choose which GOP candidate will square off against Sen. Mark Begich in the fall, likely means a lot less left-leaning voters will show up to the polls.

rep les gara twitterRepresentative Les Gara (D-Anchorage) took to twitter, calling the bill a hoax.

In 2002, the Republicans orchestrated a similar situation. Voters had gathered the necessary signatures to place a minimum wage increase on the ballot, which Republicans knocked back off the ballot through legislation accomplishing the same ends. However, in 2003, the same legislature returned to their passed legislation, and stripped both the inflation escalator and minimum wage increase.

Last weekend, history seemed to be repeating. The fear was that Republicans were up to the same dirty tricks. Ballot initiatives passed by voters cannot be touched by the legislature for two years. Legislative bills can be changed at pleasure of legislators.

Flanagan is seriously concerned because the campaign is effectively out of money, having raised $72,000 and spending $69,000. And, with the radio ads that flowed across talk radio explaining the trick of 2003-2004, is there any money left?

“We won’t turn our nose up at outside money if any is offered, particularly if outside money from groups like the Koch brothers. [If] Americans For Prosperity weigh in – [but I] have not heard of that type of outside anti activity yet, but it could happen.”

For now, Republicans’ multi-pronged strategy appears to have worked in their favor. The extended session clears the initiative from the primary ballot without having to concede any minimum wage increase. Furthermore, with three more months separating the voters from the initiative, those money issues aren’t going to get any better.

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