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Wage increase gaining steam, but GOP warns of consequences

Local legislators agree with top Minnesota Democrats that a minimum wage increase will likely pass this legislative session.

The confidence that a minimum wage plan will get through — after stalling last year — came during a preview session Wednesday with Capitol reporters. The details, however, are still in flux and will be negotiated early in a session that begins next week.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe and Sen. Dan Sparks, both DFL-Austin, believe there’s plenty of momentum to pass a minimum wage increase, but the details may hold up an early decision this session.

“The question is, really, should a minimum wage be a living wage?” Poppe said Thursday.

Minnesota’s minimum wage is $6.15 per hour, though many workers automatically receive the higher federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Some workers such as babysitters, taxi drivers, nonprofit volunteers and others are exempt from the minimum wage. The Minnesota wage hasn’t gone up since 2005.

Last year, the Senate approved a bill gradually raising Minnesota’s minimum hourly wage to $7.75. The House-adopted plan lifted it to $9.50 per hour, phased in over time. The House bill also makes changes to laws governing overtime and unpaid leave for new parents. The Senate’s plan doesn’t.

According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune poll published Wednesday, nearly 8 in 10 people surveyed supported a boost of some level, though far fewer supported going to $9.50.

Minnesota technically has two minimum wages now because smaller businesses — those with gross sales below $625,000 per year — can pay a lower rate than all other businesses.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the final compromise must preserve those special accommodations for small businesses to help cushion any blow.

What’s more, nursing home and other care workers are paid under a separate rate, and legislators were also hung up on a pay increase for those workers last year.

“It’s a tough sell to say you’re going to try to increase the minimum wage for someone starting out, and the nursing home workers won’t get an increase along with it,” Sparks said.

Small business interests will also play a large part in the discussion. The key, according to both legislators, will be finding an increase that will help employees at large corporations that don’t pay a good enough wage to live on without bankrupting small businesses across the state from the increased costs.

Sparks also said legislators in border districts like himself are concerned with raising the minimum wage too far past other state minimum wages and risk losing businesses to Iowa, Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota.

Despite the hurdles, Democratic leaders say a minimum wage increase is not only possible but likely.

“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to move pretty expeditiously on this bill and get it passed after working out what are legitimate public policy issues,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

Thissen said he expects a bill to reach Gov. Mark Dayton in the first few weeks of session. Dayton has pledged support.

Republicans seemed resigned to an increase, but warned it would have repercussions. They cited a new federal study showing a national wage proposal could lead employers to cut jobs.

“I know that increasing the minimum wage sounds great, but unfortunately this is a solution that is going to unemploy the underemployed,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Bakk and Thissen countered that putting more money in the pockets of the working poor will make them less dependent on government assistance.

“We ought to be moving people in a direction that makes people more self-sufficient,” Thissen said. “That’s what raising the minimum wage is all about.”

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said his colleagues “could live with” the federal minimum of $7.25.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.