Lawmakers consider minimum wage hike proposals
BAXTER — Five of six central Minnesota lawmakers on Thursday said they favored an increase in the state’s minimum wage, although it appeared there were differences as to what that precise wage figure should be.
The legislators addressed Brainerd Lakes Chamber members at that organization’s Eggs and Issues event at the Arrowwood Lodge.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, all said they’d support conforming to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. In Minnesota minimum wage is $6.15 for large employers; $5.25 for small employers; with a training wage minimum set at $4.90 per hour.
In comments after the meeting, Gazelka said conforming to the federal minimum was his compromise position in light of the expectation that the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate would push for a larger increase.
“It appears the increase both sides want would be substantially higher than that — both sides being DFL House and DFL Senate,” he said in an interview.
Gazelka said young people under age 24 make up more than 50 percent of the minimum wage earners. He expressed concern that too big of a hike would hurt small businesses, many of which were located outstate.
“Rural Minnesota pays the price for this,” Gazelka said at the breakfast session.
Kresha said the government’s deciding to raise the minimum wage is a case of dictating terms to business. More effort, he said, should be placed on incentives for people to acquire skills that would qualify them for more than minimum wage jobs and attacking unemployment.
Also supporting a minimum wage increase were Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, and Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby. Radinovich said an increase was much needed and noted many minimum wage earners haven’t seen any kind of pay increase in some time. The Crosby lawmaker said he’d support setting the minimum wage at $9.50 per hour.
“This is people’s lives we’re talking about,” Radinovich said. “A wage is not a commodity.”
Ward said supported a minimum wage hike and said he wants to have a conversation about how much it should be. He said he’s read that two-thirds of the people who earn minimum wage are women.
Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, didn’t specify what he might support in terms of a potential minimum wage hike but described such maneuvering as “artificially propping up the economy,” with the result of paying people with minimum skills wages that were more than minimum. Anderson, a self-employed business person, said it bothers him to see legislators who have never hired people tell employers what they have to pay their workers — calling the practice “political grandstanding.” The Legislature, he said, was wasting a lot of time on such issues.
Minnesota is one of four states (along with Wyoming, Arkansas and Georgia) where the minimum wage is lower than the federal minimum.
Reflections on last year’s legislative session — in which Democrats controlled both chambers — split along party lines.
Ruud said the Legislature “reached into your pocket” to come up with a surplus.
Ward said the Legislature did raise taxes but noted it also invested in job growth and used all aspects of public policy to come up with fair, balanced, long-term solutions without resorting to budget gimmickry.
Gazelka said the total tax increase last session was about $2.1 billion plus various fee hikes. He called for the repeal of the warehouse tax, maintaining the state would lose 7,000 jobs if that wasn’t accomplished. He also wanted to see repeals of business-to-business taxes and a telecommunications tax. He favored a Rainy Day Fund increase.
Radinovich said he would consider repeal of some of the most criticized taxes depending upon what the February economic forecast reported.
Anderson said the Legislature spent $62 billion in the last biennium and then raised that amount of spending by $6 billion for the current biennium.
Anderson spoke favorably of the Central Lakes College’s $5 million bonding request for the Staples campus but was less enthused about other requests.
“There’s a lot of frivolous stuff in these bills,” Anderson said.
Gazelka said bonding projects should be regional or statewide in their scope. Ruud agreed as she advocated for the Brainerd Regional Airport’s bonding request that would extend Brainerd city water lines to the airport. The airport project was also endorsed by Radinovich and Ward, vice chair of the House Capital Committee. Ward called for a bonding bill of about $1 billion to improve the state’s infrastructure and create jobs.
Kresha said legislators had to be fiscally responsible as they consider bonding projects.
Lawmakers all expressed concern about aquatic invasive species. Ruud and Radinovich said possible solutions will depend on what scientists learn as they study the issue.
“There’s no silver bullet yet,” Ward said of the problem.
Gazelka said the keys to fighting aquatic invasive species were education, enforcement and research. He said there’s not an identifiable way to stop it right now so the state should not automatically throw money at the problem.
Kevin Larson, CEO/general manager of Consolidated Telecommunications Co., asked legislators to repeal last session’s sales tax on the telecommunications industry since many lawmakers are calling for the expansion of broad band capabilities. He said the tax, which went into effect in July, costs his business tens of thousands of dollars.