Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 2, 2008: Legislature should boost minimum wage

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March 2, 2008

If the Legislature does nothing about Minnesota’s minimum wage this year, something believed to be without precedent in state history will happen on July 24: The federal minimum wage will climb to $6.55 an hour and exceed Minnesota’s.

Some may see that news as a sign that Minnesota is becoming more friendly for businesses with low-wage workers. We would invite their attention to some other news:

• This month, 3,700 people swamped Plymouth City Hall to enter a lottery for a meager 300 vouchers for taxpayer-subsidized housing.

• This state witnessed an 18 percent increase in participation in the taxpayer-funded food stamp program between 2003 and 2007 — years in which the economy was considered healthy.

• During the same years, Minnesota saw a 22 percent increase in participation in the Women-Infants-Children taxpayer-funded food program for those so poor that they are deemed “at nutritional risk.”

Is a low minimum wage really business friendly? Not if it drives up pressure for taxpayer support for the working poor.

Minnesota is a comparatively high-wage state. It’s been easy for its politicians to overlook the minimum wage year after year in the belief that it has little importance in this state’s economy.

That shouldn’t be legislators’ attitude this year. Not in the wake of word last year from the U.S. Census Bureau that Minnesota is experiencing the nation’s most rapid increase in the share of its population in “severe poverty.” And this, too: One in five Minnesota jobs pays less than $9.27 an hour — what the minimum wage would have been in 2006, if the 1968 minimum had risen with inflation.

Negotiations have begun at the Capitol, aimed at keeping Minnesota’s wage floor higher than the federal increases that are coming ($6.55 on July 24, 2008; $7.25 on July 24, 2009.) Some of Minnesota’s most seasoned lawmakers are on the case, including DFLers Ellen Anderson in the Senate, Tom Rukavina in the House, and former Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, the Pawlenty administration’s commissioner of labor and industry.

They would be well advised to aim for a modest increase and avoid wading into the political thicket of a minimum wage policy overhaul. We’d suggest sticking with features in current law: A break for small employers. No automatic increases for inflation. No lower wage for tipped employees. No discount for teenagers. Work is work, whether it’s performed by a 16-year-old or a 65-year-old.

A state’s minimum wage is about more than the size of workers’ paychecks. It’s also a statement of how deeply a state values work, no matter how lowly the job. We think most Minnesotans hold that all work is noble. The state’s minimum wage needs to be higher to reflect that value.

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