Should Missouri bump up its minimum wage by a dollar? How about two bucks?
Groups that backed a successful wage increase in 2006 are once again weighing whether to take on the long struggle to put the issue back on the statewide ballot next year.
Merely landing the question on ballots would be a strategic win for Democrats. It would give voters power over an issue near and dear to the party. And it probably would get more Democratic voters to cast ballots in an off-year election — giving them a better chance to whittle away at historic Republican majorities in the General Assembly.
“It could definitely help turnout among certain types of voters that typically support Democrats and tend to take a pass during off-year elections,” said David Robertson, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The minimum wage in Missouri is $7.35 an hour, 10 cents higher than the federal level because of an automatic inflation escalator built into state law. Four different proposed ballot initiatives have been approved by the secretary of state’s office, allowing supporters to begin gathering signatures to put it on the ballot.
Various proposals would hike the minimum wage to different hourly levels — $8.40, $8.45, $8.50 and $9.50 — with an annual cost-of-living adjustment in subsequent years. Each also would require tipped employees to be paid at least 60 percent of the minimum wage instead of the current 50 percent.
But the road from submitting a petition to getting on the ballot is long and expensive, winnowing the wide range of ideas to just a select few. Only two of the 143 petitions submitted for the 2012 statewide ballot ultimately went before voters.
Lawsuits are proving increasingly effective at keeping measures off the ballot, said Lara Granich, director of the group advocating a wage hike — Missouri Jobs with Justice.
Her organization learned that lesson last year when it had to abandon a proposed minimum wage ballot measure in the face of a well-financed opposition and a spate of legal challenges.
“In 2006, three-fourths of Missourians supported raising the minimum wage,” she said. “It’s still an incredibly popular idea. So the challenge isn’t convincing voters. The challenge will be getting the issue on the ballot in the first place.”
Granich said supporters of the idea are “keeping all our options open about what we’re going to pursue next year” and will decide in the coming months whether to make another run at the ballot.
“We’re looking at a number of different issues right now to improve the lives of working families in Missouri,” she said. “The economy is recovering, but it’s leaving a lot of Missourians behind. More and more families are depending on the minimum wage, which is not enough to support a family.”
David Stokes, a policy analyst for the conservative Show-Me Institute, hopes proponents of a minimum wage increase will decide against pushing a 2014 campaign. He argues that a higher minimum wage — especially when indexed to inflation — discourages businesses from hiring additional employees and can ultimately result in layoffs.
Many minimum wage workers are “young people who aren’t from poor families,” Stokes said. “Raising minimum wage will give a lot of middle-class teenagers a pay raise, but it won’t help the people its backers are trying to help.”
It would be wiser, Stokes said, to focus on policy that would increase employment among the unemployed rather than trying to increase the wages of those already drawing paychecks.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, three-quarters of minimum wage earners are 20 years old or older. In Missouri, a quarter are working parents. The federal minimum wage stands at $7.25, which is just over $15,000 a year for a full-time worker.
“Corporate interests that don’t want to pay higher wages will try a lot of scare tactics,” Granich said. “But raising the minimum wage puts more money into people’s hands and translates into more money into the state’s economy.”
The idea of putting more money into a worker’s wallet appeals to a broad spectrum of voters, Robertson said. The political scientist said that explains why minimum wage increases have been so popular at the ballot box.
“If it ends up on the ballot, it’s a pretty sure thing it will pass,” he said. “The debate about the cost and the effect on employment tends to be more specialized and doesn’t wind up having much of an influence on the public discourse.”
The only statewide office up for election next year in Missouri is auditor. There’s no presidential or Senate race. That typically translates to low voter turnout, Robertson said, despite the fact that all 163 seats in the Missouri House will be up for grabs.
“Democrats want to cut into the Republican majority in the state legislature” to prevent a veto-proof majority that could minimize Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s power, he said. “Democrats tend to turn out in lower percentages than Republicans, so anything that gets out their vote is going to help the Democrats.”
It’s not uncommon across the country for both parties to use ballot measures to drive turnout, Robertson said. Republicans, for example, previously pushed for gay marriage bans or initiatives challenging the federal health care law, and Democrats championed issues such as the minimum wage and stem cell research.
“It’s not insincere,” Robertson said. “They care about these issues, but it also creates a good opportunity for them to raise the number of voters who turn out who support their party.”
Ultimately, though, he said national trends will make a bigger difference on next year’s elections.
“The economy, the president’s approval rating, actions in Congress,” he said, “these are all going to set the tone and make a bigger difference for the small percentage of people who turn out to vote.”