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House, Senate send $9.50 minimum wage bill to Dayton’s desk

Mike Mullen//April 11, 2014

House, Senate send $9.50 minimum wage bill to Dayton’s desk

Mike Mullen//April 11, 2014

A bill to eventually raise the state minimum wage to $9.50 won final passage in the Minnesota House Thursday, sending that legislation to the desk of Gov. Mark Dayton. The House vote, which came a day after the bill cleared the Senate floor, brought an end to negotiations that began during the 2013 session and had, at times, divided Democratic leaders in the two chambers.

The new policy would take the state’s current minimum wage of $6.15, one of the lowest levels of any state in the country, and gradually increase the figure to $9.50, which would go into effect for large employers in 2016. The legislation also provides for inflation in subsequent years, though the increases would not be automatic.

The bill passed the House by a count of 71-60, with Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, joining the House Republican caucus to vote in opposition to the bill. The Senate vote count was 35-31, as three Democrats — Sen. Dan Sparks (Austin), Lyle Koenen (Clara City) and Vicki Jensen (Owatonna) — voted against the bill. (Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, was absent on the day of the vote.)

Dayton’s signature will set the state on a path to have one of the highest minimum wages in the country. Washington and Oregon currently have minimum wages above $9.00 per hour, and both states have also linked their wage rate to inflation. California, Connecticut and Maryland have all passed wage increases, with the latter two states approving a minimum at the $10.10 level backed by President Barack Obama.

Another aspect of Minnesota’s new law would allow employers to pay a $7.75 minimum wage to 16- and 17-year old employees, as well as 18- and 19-year old employees during a 90-day training period.

Under the terms of the bill, the state minimum would be recalculated each year, with increases tied to inflation capped at a maximum of 2.5 percent annually. The bill also allows the commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry to suspend the increase if certain economic indicators show evidence of a downturn. The discussion around inflation, a central tenet for the House DFL caucus, had been a major sticking point for Senate Democrats. After multiple conference committee hearings earlier this session prove fruitless in arriving at a compromise, DFL leaders finally announced that they had struck a deal earlier this week.

In introducing the bill during the Houses Thursday afternoon floor session, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, pointed to a number of changes that had been made to the proposal since a the 2013 session. Most significantly, House Democrats parted with a provision that would have inscribed in law a standard 40-hour work week and a 12-week paternity leave requirement.

“I think this represents a pretty significant compromise from where the House of Representatives was a year ago,” Winkler said.

The details of how that compromise was reached became the subject of criticism from House Republicans, many of whom used their floor speeches to rail against backroom dealing by the DFL. Late last week, House DFL members voted in favor of building a new $77 million office building for the Senate, granting approval to a controversial construction plan that had been included in the 2013 tax bill. On Monday, DFL leaders held a Capitol press conference to announce the terms of the minimum wage agreement.

Democrats have denied that the issues were closely linked, but Republicans argued the wage bill had been treated as a bargaining chip in the office building debate. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, called the agreement a “bargain among thieves,” saying the DFL was making a move that would hurt small businesses in order to construct a new office for lawmakers.

“Members of your caucus have come to us privately and told us, this was the deal, this was the bill, this was the agreement,” Garofalo said. “You guys traded small business owners’ money for a Senate office building across the street.”

Democrats, in turn, complained that Republican arguments had drifted from the substance of the proposal at hand, and argued that the GOP wanted to detract from a legislative accomplishment that would help working families.

“If we believe in hope and opportunity and hard work, this should be an easy yes vote fo this entire chamber,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy said. “And I know [Republicans] don’t want to talk about that, so you’ve talked about everything else that you could think about.”

The House debate differed from what transpired in the Senate on Wednesday, where a handful of Republicans spoke out against the bill’s merits, arguing it would lead directly to job losses for low-wage workers and make Minnesota less economically competitive with neighboring states. Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, unsuccessfully brought an amendment that would have limited the state increase to conformity with the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Dahms warned that the DFL proposal would cause restaurants and grocery stores  to lay off employees and put automated systems in their place, and other Republicans said the new minimum would drive up food prices.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann said he thought Democrats, including chief author Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis,  sincerely believed they were doing the right thing to help low-income Minnesotans, but said the bill would actually have negative consequences for those people.

“There will, no question, be people who will lose their job,” Hann said.

Democrats countered that the bill would be important for working women, especially single mothers. Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who carried an earlier version of the bill, said three-quarters  of employees in the 10 lowest-paying professions are women.

“This is a women’s issue,” Eaton said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk amended the bill to address the minimum wage for temporary employees who  are working under a specific visa program. The provision would affect the roughly 800 foreign-born employees who work in the tourism or hospitality industry around northern Minnesota’s many lake resorts through an international exchange program. Bakk’s amendment, which boosts wages for those workers to $7.50 an hour, was adopted on a voice vote.

News of the House vote was welcomed by Obama, who issued a statement thanking the Minnesota Legislature on Thursday afternoon.

“With this important step, Minnesota joins a growing coalition of states, cities, counties and businesses that have taken action to do the right thing for their workers and their citizens,” Obama said.

Dayton has announced a ceremony to sign the bill into law on Monday.

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