A minimum wage 'hodgepodge' isn't all bad

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Don’t fear the “hodgepodge.”

That’s how Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett described the prospect of Iowa counties and cities setting local minimum wage thresholds. Johnson County is phasing in a $10.10 per-hour minimum, while allowing county communities to opt out. Polk and Linn counties are studying the possibility of setting a higher minimum than the current $7.25 hourly state rate.

Corbett wants the Legislature and governor to raise the minimum wage statewide and head off local increases. Without state action, he says we’ll have a “hodgepodge” of local rates, creating headaches for businesses. He’d raise the state wage floor by 75 cents, to $8. (On Monday evening a working group appointed by the Linn County Board of Supervisors to study a wage increase recommended an $8.25 rate, at the urging of Corbett.)

I agree with Corbett that the state should raise its minimum wage. It’s been nearly 10 years since lawmakers increased it. If we’re going to have a minimum wage, and I’ve heard no serious proposal for getting rid of it, the rate should get a periodic boost. Eight bucks seems skimpy, but talk of more than doubling it to $15 flies in the face of political reality. An increase that can pass and get signed into law is likely somewhere in between.

But I also don’t see anything wrong with local governments deciding that a one-size-fits-all state minimum doesn’t fit the economic needs of their communities. If elected leaders in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines think the minimum wage in their locales should be higher than the minimum in Lamoni, Clarinda or Kiron, they should be able to set a local wage. Supervisors and city council members are better connected to local conditions than folks gathered 100 miles away under the golden dome of wisdom.

In counties and cities, the minimum wage discussions are between elected leaders, local business owners, workers and others with a stake in the outcome. At the Statehouse, what’s best for employers and workers gets tangled up and lost in the partisan struggle to win political points.

And hodgepodge eradication doesn’t always lead to good public policy.

We’ve been told many times that state regulations governing large-scale livestock confinements are much better than a hodgepodge of local rules, locally controlled. Now, thanks to flaws and loopholes in those state rules, local officials are powerless to stop projects their constituents strongly oppose or that threaten the environment.

Gov. Terry Branstad didn’t like a hodgepodge of school start dates set by local school boards, so he instructed state education officials to take back local control. He also signed an executive order in 2011 barring local governments from working out a hodgepodge of agreements with local labor unions to provide workers for public projects. In both cases, the governor was acting to head off headaches for his business pals.

I’m not suggesting Corbett doesn’t appreciate the virtues of local decision-making. After all, he was the one who clashed with Branstad over project labor agreements.

But we should be wary of calls for neatness and uniformity, especially with rules written by politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats in Des Moines. A hodgepodge of local officials responding to the needs of their constituents isn’t a problem. It’s democracy.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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