County minimum wage plan on the right track

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It’s been nearly nine years since Iowa’s lowest-income earners got a raise. That’s far too long, in our view.

But our Legislature, where control is split between Republicans who are skeptical of a minimum raise increase and Democrats who favor a raise, has failed to forge a bipartisan deal.

In the absence of legislative leadership, counties are taking up the issue.

Linn County’s Board of Supervisors is poised to vote Wednesday on the first reading of an ordinance raising the minimum wage here to $8.25 on Jan. 1, 2017, with New Year’s Day increases to $9.25 and $10.25 in 2018 and 2019.

Details may change as supervisors discuss the proposal, spearheaded by Supervisor Ben Rogers. Cities in the county could opt out of the increase by crafting their own wage ordinances.

We urge those communities to sign on and give a boost to thousands of local employees.

Although we’d still prefer a statewide increase, we believe the first two step increases, to $8.25 and $9.25 are appropriate and reasonable. In fact, the first step is a necessary correction that will do little more than bring minimum wage earners’ buying power back to 2008 levels. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI inflation tracker, the $7.25 minimum wage which took effect in that year is equivalent to $8.10 in today’s dollars.

We’re more wary of the jump to $10.25, based on our concerns for how it might affect local small businesses. The good news is, stakeholders will have two years to assess the effects of steps one and two before the top wage kicks in.

That assessment should go beyond costs to businesses and include the burden low wages place on taxpayer-funded public assistance programs. When businesses pay minimum or near-minimum wages, how much are workers forced to rely on taxpayer-funded programs to cover the cost of food, housing and other necessities? It’s the hidden cost of low incomes we all pay, and it’s an issue often lost in the minimum wage debate.

But while determining the ideal minimum wage requires discussion, one thing is certain: tying increases to inflation would ensure compensation keeps pace with the cost of living while minimizing the effect on business.

If lawmakers had seen fit to do so the last time, we wouldn’t be struggling to pass necessary increases today.

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