Iowa Legislature set to resume minimum-wage battle

Leaders in both Iowa Senate, Iowa House plan to introduce bills this session

Democrats here and across the country have seized on polls showing strong support for raising the minimum wage and have promised to push the issue as the country heads into the midterm elections.

Democrats in Florida, Maryland and Wisconsin, among other states, were calling for increases in their respective states last week.

In Iowa, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, and House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, both said lawmakers in their caucus will introduce bills this session to raise minimum wage from the current $7.25. They made the statements during a meeting with reporters at the Statehouse on Wednesday.

That same day, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa delivered a floor speech in Washington D.C. where he invoked President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which was introduced 50 years ago last week, and called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 over three years.

Back in Des Moines, however, Republican leaders and Gov. Terry Branstad were decidedly cool to the proposal.

“I want to point out that I voted for the minimum wage increase last time it came up,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said, adding raising the minimum wage can make it harder on employers. “I think we’re a little more focused right now on making sure we continue to grow the economy by encouraging employers to invest in our state,” he said.

David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, said raising the minimum wage won’t help working poor as much as cutting overall unemployment would, but he can see the attraction to it.

“Why is this coming up now? Well, five years ago the biggest concern was rampant unemployment. It would seem that any issue was secondary to just getting people back to work,” he said.

$7.25 an hour

For Mary Nelson, a married, 24-year-old mother of three from Ames, the issue just might be one to get her more interested in politics.

Nelson left her job at an Ames fast-food restaurant — she asks that the name of the company be left out of this story but identifies a national hamburger chain — two weeks ago after a disagreement with management over hours.

There, she had made $7.25 an hour and, on good weeks, worked 40 hours a week. That works out to $15,080 a year, which is just under the federal poverty level of $15,510 for a family of two.

“You cannot survive on $7.25,” said Nelson, whose children are ages 7, 4, and 10 months. “Between diapers, medication and rent — it’s impossible.”

Nelson said she doesn’t pay much attention to politics and voted for the first time last year. But, she said, if she knew a candidate was for the minimum wage, she would vote.

“If they could raise it to $8.50 or $9, I think that would help a lot of people,” she said.

Nelson’s opinions mirror several polls released over the past several weeks.

A Dec. 18 Washington Post/ABC poll found that 66 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage compared to 31 percent that opposed it.

A Jan. 8 Quinnipiac University poll found that Americans support raising the minimum wage 71-27 percent, and support among Republicans was 52-45 percent.

On Jan. 9, the liberal group Progress Iowa released the results of a statewide survey it commissioned with Public Policy Polling which claimed 53 percent of Iowans support raising the minimum wage somewhere between $7.25 and $10.10 an hour.

John Steinman is the executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance. It’s an umbrella group that represents the 16 largest chamber and economic development groups in the state. He said the group doesn’t have an official position yet on a potential minimum wage hike, but it’s an issue he’ll follow closely.

“I really think the 99 percent stuff got traction in terms of focusing discussion in some circles on the haves and have-nots, as have the cumulative reports of income and wealth disparity of late,” Swenson said. “Even among the more-monied groups or those groups' favorite media feeding troughs, there are discussions of the social dysfunction potential linked to widespread absence of income mobility.”

Political chances

Research by a group of political scientists published in the November 2012 Policy Studies Journal indicates the political realities don’t favor a higher minimum wage this year in Iowa.

The study tracked hundreds of minimum wage bill proposals filed in statehouses between 1997 and 2006 and how those proposals fared depending on which party controlled the legislature.

Chris Larimer, a professor from the University of Northern Iowa, was part of the research team.

“There is some evidence that politics comes into play into the decision to introducing a bill, so if you have Democrats in control, you’re more likely to see legislation introduced,” Larimer said. “On the other hand, even if you have Democrats in control you’re not more likely to adopt the legislation than if you have Republican control.”

In Iowa, Democrats control the Senate and Republicans control the House of Representatives, so it seems like a wash.

But, Larimer adds, when the ideology of the citizenry is more Democratic than Republican, there’s “a slight favorability” toward introduction and adoption of legislation that raises the minimum wage.

As of Jan. 1, 2014, registered active Republicans outnumbered registered active Democrats 616,762 to 615,428 in the state. That would, according to the research, tip the scales slightly into the “no” column.

Still, active registered independents outnumber either party with 719,917 registered “no party.”

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