County wage vote coming up

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So it looks like our Linn County Board of Supervisors is fixin’ to vote Wednesday on an ordinance raising the minimum wage around these parts.

The likely vehicle for this move is a proposal by Supervisor Ben Rogers raising the current state-imposed $7.25 per hour wage by a dollar in each of the next three years on Jan. 1. So on Jan. 1, 2019, the local minimum under his plan would be $10.25. Wednesday’s vote will be the first of three readings. Details may change.

Cities within the county would be free to approve ordinances opting out or setting lower minimums than the county levels. It’s likely some will, creating the dreaded “patchwork.”

This all seems pretty straightforward.

We have a minimum wage. Aside from scattered, persistent grumbling about all things government, I’ve seen no serious plan for getting rid of it. If polls can be believed, most Iowans want a minimum and support raising it.

It’s been nearly nine years since $7.25 became law. So there’s a pretty strong sense we’re overdue for an increase. The state Legislature has been unable, and in the case of House Republicans, unwilling to address the issue. So local governments are filling the leadership void.

I like Rogers’ plan, especially the first two steps. I think $9.25 is a solid goal. It’s a 27 percent boost, but that’s just 2.7 percent annually when averaged out across 10 years between the last increase and Jan. 1, 2018.

I admit that third step looks like a doozy. In three years, it may look less steep. With flexibility built in for cities, there’s ample time to monitor effects and adjust if needed.

Will businesses face higher labor costs? Yes. Will employment take some sort of hit? Yes. Will consumers ultimately pay the freight in higher prices? Yes. Will thousands of people get a raise? Yes. More than 18,000 according to the Iowa Policy Project, with more than half working full time.

There will be costs and benefits. And they’re the costs and benefits we’ve already endorsed by having a minimum wage, one that will be raised periodically.

I’ve long argued our minimum wage should be indexed to rise automatically with inflation, a concept the county is considering. In part, it would make wage increases more predictable than our current system of raise, neglect, erupt. Also, we could avoid these tedious debates.

From the left, we get exaggerated benefits and calls for a “living wage.” In Linn County, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for a single adult is $9.65. Rogers’ plan exceeds that, but add one child to the household, and the threshold jumps to $21.68. That’s a gap, unfortunately, the minimum wage can’t jump.

From the right, we get overstated economic threats and mixed messages. Raising the minimum wage would be too costly, critics says. Also, almost nobody works for the minimum wage, so there’s no reason to raise it, critics insist. My new favorite is we need to keep our minimum low to either spark ambition or punish bad choices. For fun, try telling waitresses or bartenders their paltry paycheck is really for their own good. They need bootstraps! You may need a towel.

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

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