Government

Iowa Legislature likely to have minimum wage debate - or two

The House chamber at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The House chamber at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

It’s all but certain the Iowa Legislature will have a minimum wage debate this year. Maybe two.

Republicans, who will control state government when the Legislature convenes Jan. 9 don’t like the “hodgepodge” of minimum wages being set by county boards in Linn, Polk, Wapello and Johnson counties. That means there will be attempts to pre-empt local government from setting their own minimum wage rates.

What’s less clear is whether they also will raise the state’s 10-year-old $7.25-an-hour minimum wage.

Attempts to raise the minimum wage occur almost every year, but the current debate is being driven by those county decisions. In September, the Linn County Board of Supervisors voted to establish an $8.25 per hour minimum wage with annual increases raising it to $10.25 on Jan. 1, 2019. That followed decisions in Polk County to go to $10.75 by 2019, and $10.10 in Johnson this year and in Wapello County by 2019.

“That patchwork system doesn’t work,” House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said, echoing comments by her colleague House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, and Gov. Terry Branstad.

“Certainly, I do know today that the vast majority of lawmakers are concerned with pre-emption. That’s the focus, but I don’t know where it ends,” Upmeyer said.

The patchwork of minimum wages is a burden to business, especially those which operate in multiple counties, according to Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. Even in Johnson County, there are different minimum wages in effect because four cities returned to $7.25 and one approved a rate between the state rate and the county-approved minimum wage.

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He called the wage differentials an impediment to business development that also increases administrative costs for employers.

Branstad, who signed a bill in 1989 that created Iowa’s minimum wage then at a $3.35 hourly rate, agrees the various rates creates confusion and a hardship on employers. Branstad has been coy about whether he would support an increase this year. Lawmakers must look at what’s “fair and realistic,” the governor said, but added that $15 an hour is “unrealistic.”

However, Democratic lawmakers and liberal interest groups argue that even $15-an-hour is not enough to support Iowa families. Also a report from the Iowa Policy Project showed that in many counties a single parent with two children would need a wage of at least $20 an hour to meet family expenses without government support.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement spokeswoman Bridget Fagan-Reidburn and Progress Iowa’s Matt Sinovic said their groups will not accept any pre-emption legislation that would lower workers’ wages.

That’s because it is “politically untenable for Republicans to simply pre-empt the local wage ordinances and force Linn County, Johnson County, Wapello County and Polk County back down to $7.25 an hour because they would be voting to reduce wages for thousands of Iowans,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said.

Republicans aren’t going to lower anyone’s wages, Upmeyer said.

“We’re going to clarify what is the state minimum wage. (Employers) can pay whatever they like,” she said.

Besides, House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, said, “It’s because those individual counties have deviated that we need to act.”

Some Republicans agree with Hogg that it’s time to raise the minimum wage, Hagenow said, but they haven’t landed on a number yet. In 2015, Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, a business owner, joined Democrats in voting for a minimum wage hike.

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In addition to raising the minimum wage, House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, would like to see the state follow Johnson County’s lead to tie future increases to the cost of living.

Hogg’s not entirely sure the “hodgepodge” Branstad complains of is a bad thing.

“I actually see benefit of local control because different parts of the state are in different places,” he said. For some communities, raising the minimum wage is a way to attract workers. “I can see a role for local control because it allows communities to compete for workers.”

Democrats generally support minimum wage increase, Hogg said, “but that is only part of a more comprehensive approach we have to good jobs, good benefits and broad prosperity.”

“The minimum wage is a straightforward, easy issues to understand, but there are a lot of other things we need to be doing,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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