Senate committee advances ban on local minimum wage hikes

GOP offers hope for statewide increase, but others skeptical

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

DES MOINES — Majority GOP senators advanced a bill Wednesday prohibiting local governments from setting minimum wages higher than the state’s $7.25 hourly rate, but did not rule out addressing the statewide pay threshold separately yet this session.

Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, said subcommittee testimony had made clear Iowans see a need to raise the state minimum wage, but he noted it would be dealt with separately from House-passed legislation asserting the state’s sole authority in setting business and employment standards for Iowa.

“I do suggest that at some point we do look at another bill that would increase our minimum wage in this state,” Feenstra told members of the Senate State Government Committee, who voted 9-6 to approve House File 295. “However, we’re not there at this time.”

Provisions of the House bill would immediately bar cities and counties from usurping state authority in business and employment matters and the sale or marketing of consumer merchandise, something Feenstra said is needed to ensure uniformity and “prevent a patchwork quilt of regulations.”

Minority Democrats who opposed the bill and independent Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan questioned whether legislation dealing with a minimum-wage increase would actually surface this year, with about a month left before lawmakers’ per-diem expense money ends April 18 — usually a harbinger of adjournment.

“That there is going to be a minimum-wage increase is laughable on its face. It really is. Not with this Legislature and people who are here and the people who will come back next year,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to talk local control here, let’s get it right. We really should. This is an identity crisis.”

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, said costs of living vary among Iowa communities and they should be able to adjust to their local needs. Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, questioned the propriety of a “ridiculous” bill loaded up with a “crazy combination” of issues that ranged “from plastics to paychecks.”

Petersen also worried the legislation would roll back pay increases for workers in Johnson, Linn, Polk and Wapello counties where supervisors have voted to raise the minimum levels following years of legislative inaction. The wage issue was last addressed by the 2007 session.

“We’re moving at a snail’s pace here. It’s impacting people’s daily lives,” Petersen said.

“I would imagine that if this bill passes, the employers in the counties where they have raised the minimum wage will not do a darn thing for the people who work for them,” she said. “This will be a huge hit, to women in particular working minimum wage jobs.”

However, committee Chairman Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, said there was nothing in the pre-emption bill that would prevent employers from paying more than the $7.25 an hour. He also noted that many low-payscale employees actually make more than $10 an hour with the help of federal and state earned income tax credits.

“There’s nothing in this bill that lowers the minimum wage for anybody. Employers can still choose to pay the higher minimum wage if they like,” Smith said.

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, said he suspected majority Republicans were pressing ahead with the pre-emption bill to beat Polk County’s April 1 implementation date in boosting the minimum wage there to $8.75 an hour. That and other county wage rates higher than the state’s $7.25 hourly minimum would be nullified once the bill clears the Legislature and is signed by the governor.

“These communities that waited and waited and waited nine, 10 years and haven’t seen any increase have finally taken some action,” he said. “These cities and counties, they’re desperate because they see the poverty and they see the need.”

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