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Minimum wage hike gains momentum

Published January 31. 2015 09:01AM

HARRISBURG State Sen. Christine Tartaglione has tried to raise the minimum wage so often, it could almost be called a tradition at the state Capitol.

Given that, it wasn't a shock Tuesday to see the Philadelphia Democrat pushing a package of bills that would raise Pennsylvania's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016, just as she did in the past session.

What was surprising is that one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, also supports raising the minimum wage, albeit to a more modest $8.75 an hour. Not only is Wagner a Republican, he's a business owner, placing him in two groups that usually oppose such a government mandate on the private sector.

"We have received some perplexed looks, yes, I will say that," Jason High, Wagner's chief of staff, said Tuesday.

The right thing

Wagner thinks raising the minimum wage is the "right thing to do," High said, but believes pushing it to $10.10 is unreasonable.

"It would be one more issue that would make it more difficult for businesses to stay or locate in Pennsylvania," High said, adding that increasing the minimum wage 50 cents a year over three years as Wagner proposes would give workers a boost and would not overly burden employers.

The rate would also align Pennsylvania with surrounding states Delaware's minimum wage is $7.75, Maryland's is $8 and New York's is $8.75, for example. The legislation could pass the Senate with bipartisan support, as long as both parties cede some ground, Wagner's chief of staff said.

Training wage

Wagner's proposal also would set a "training wage" of $7.25 for workers 18 and under, which High said would continue to encourage employers to hire young people.

Tartaglione's package of legislation would make more sweeping changes, including tying future increases to inflation. It would also raise the tipped minimum wage, currently $2.83 an hour to $3.95 on hour on July 1.

Tartaglione introduced similar reforms in the past, but said the political atmosphere was not conducive for change.

"But now, I have a president who's pushing it, and I have a new governor who's pushing it," she said. "It makes it a lot different."

J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University, said raising the minimum wage would be an "uphill battle," given that Pennsylvania's General Assembly tilted even further to the right in the last election and that business-friendly Republicans usually oppose the policy. It's also hard to think the GOP would give a victory to new Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who supports raising the minimum wage to $10.10, he said.

Yet Leckrone acknowledged that Wagner's proposal could be evidence of a "grand bargain" taking shape between Wolf and state lawmakers who can't just entrench themselves against Wolf if they want to pass their favored policies.

"In the grand scheme of things, a minimum wage increase probably would be more palatable than some other things on the table," Leckrone said, pointing to Wolf's desire to restructure the state's income tax.

Phasing in

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, has talked with Wagner before about raising the minimum wage, he said. He noted that while there might be different opinions on where to set a new minimum wage and how long it should take to be phased in, Wagner has some clout among Republicans that could help spur action.

"Hopefully he'll be able to bring some of his colleagues along as well," Costa said.

Wagner might also have to sell the idea to his colleagues in the business world who might look unfavorably upon the proposal through the prism of their bottom lines.

According to the state Department of Labor and Industry, 190,800 Pennsylvania workers earned the minimum wage or less, with a majority of them 16 to 24 years old. More than 80 percent of those workers had no children, and 28 percent came from homes with household incomes of $75,000 or more a year.

That led Kevin Shivers, executive state director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania, to contend a minimum wage increase would do little to bring people out of poverty. Saddling business owners with a higher minimum wage when they're already facing higher health care costs is "fiscally imprudent," he said.

"When you raise the minimum wage, the people you are harming the most are new entrants to the job market and those that are trying to re-enter the job market," Shivers said.

That viewpoint has not stopped pleas for lawmakers to increase the minimum wage. Raise The Wage PA, a coalition of unions and advocacy groups that supports raising the minimum wage to $10.10, planned to rally this week, but a winter storm derailed the event.

Bipartisan effort

Coincidentally, one proponent of the cause gave Wagner's proposal a chilly reception.

John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, raised the possibility that Wagner is trying to "co-opt" the movement and said his legislation instituting an hourly rate of $8.75 is aimed at keeping the wage low rather than ensuring it goes up.

While Dodds said there is bipartisan support for a minimum wage hike, Wagner's legislation wouldn't be the vessel.

"It's so low it really just locks people in at an absolute poverty wage," he said.

Such a "cynical" viewpoint can't be discounted, Leckrone said, but he also raised the possibility Wagner is leaving room to meet in the middle. Like Dodds, Tartaglione said Wagner's proposal for $8.75 is too low, but she is willing to negotiate.

High said $10.10 won't pass the Senate.

"I think they're going to fight for $10.10 because they want $10.10. So, of course they're going to say ours is too low," High said of Raise The Wage PA. "Our response is $10.10 is unreasonably high."

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