Activist groups are throwing their weight behind a Senate bill to increase Idaho’s minimum wage after abandoning an effort to gather enough signatures to put a similar measure before voters next November.
The bid to put more money in the pockets of Idaho’s lowest-paid workers cleared its first hurdle Feb. 10, when the Senate State Affairs Committee voted to send it forward to a full hearing. The AFL-CIO union and United Vision for Idaho are pushing the bill.
But even its sponsors acknowledge it’s a longshot in Republican-run Idaho, where lawmakers are reluctant to add to requirements on what businesses should pay their workers.
“It probably won’t go very far, but I was pleased that a number of senators said this issue still needs to be addressed at this point,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, adding her main goal is to contribute to the discussion.
The bill would increase the state’s minimum hourly pay from $7.25 – the federal requirement – to $8.50 July 1, then raise it again to $9.75 in 2015.
But Republicans who control 81 percent of the Legislature immediately criticized the plan, throwing its future into doubt.
Sen. Bart Davis, a Republican from Idaho Falls, said Idaho’s existing system of tying state wages to the federal minimum provided Idaho workers with pay raises every time the federal rate jumps, as it did most recently in 2009, increasing from $6.55 per hour to the current $7.25.
That should be good enough, Davis argued.
Since 2007, “Idahoans have received an increase of two dollars and ten cents during a very difficult recession, when they needed it,” he said.
The bill comes at the same time as a similar voter initiative also seeks to bring up the minimum wage. The initiative calls for eventually increasing minimum hourly wages to $9.80.
But Anne Nesse, the initiative’s architect, said she still has only one-ninth of the 53,751 signatures needed to get the proposal on the ballot. With the April deadline to collect all the signatures looming, “the trajectory does not look good,” Nesse said.
One reason for the dour outlook: Groups including United Vision for Idaho and the AFL-CIO dropped out of a plan to help Nesse gather signatures after concluding the effort was doomed.
“We thought the Legislature was the best chance that we had in getting this issue raised here in Idaho,” said Rian Van Leuven, president of the Idaho State AFL-CIO.
Adrienne Evans, director of United Vision for Idaho in Boise, said there isn’t enough time left for the initiative to work.
“We want to be realistic and strategic about how much time would that take, and how we can use our efforts and our resources to get the best possible outcome,” Evans said.
Idaho currently has the highest share of workers per capita earning the minimum wage in the U.S., according to a federal report.
Additionally, Stennett says, 80 percent of minimum wage workers are older than 20, with an average age of 35, and more than half of them are full-time employees. They are not just part-time workers and teenagers looking for extra spending money, she said.
“The current minimum wage in Idaho is about half the amount it takes to meet the basic needs of one adult,” she said. “A growing number of people have to work almost two full-time jobs at minimum wage just to meet their basic needs.”
Her plan would put Idaho in line with some of the state’s neighbors: Washington has the nation’s highest hourly wage at $9.32 , and workers in Oregon started making $9.10 this year.
The bill is now headed for a discussion by the full committee, but even those who voted to consider it suggested that’s the limit of their support.
Davis said he voted to hold a public hearing only out of respect for Stennett, the Democrats’ leader.
Updated at 9:10 a.m. Feb. 11 with more information.