Voters in two Republican-controlled states this week overwhelmingly approved minimum wage hikes, giving new hope to advocates in Louisiana, where even more modest proposals repeatedly have been rejected at the GOP-dominated State Capitol in recent years.
Minimum-wage workers in Louisiana make $7.25 an hour because it remains one of just five states that never adopted a state-level minimum wage rate and, therefore, defaults to the federal rate that hasn't changed since 2009.
Missouri voters on Tuesday approved, with 62 percent supporting, a gradual minimum wage increase from $7.85 to $12 an hour by 2023. Arkansas, meanwhile, voted 68 percent in favor of increasing the minimum wage from $8.50 to $11 over three years. Workers in both states will start seeing bigger paychecks in January.
On top of the referendums in Arkansas and Missouri this week, the minimum wage went up in 18 other states at the start of 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The previous year, 19 states saw minimum wage hikes.
But despite finding popularity elsewhere, and the vocal backing of Gov. John Bel Edwards here, minimum wage proposals have consistently faltered in the Louisiana Legislature in recent years.
Edwards, a Democrat, campaigned on his support of a minimum wage hike in the 2015 election. He faces re-election next year against a still-to-be-determined slate of Republican challengers.
"Other Southern conservative states are recognizing that $7.25 per hour is not a meaningful wage in 2018," Edwards deputy chief of staff Richard Carbo said Wednesday. "For the last three years, the Legislature has refused to support a pay raise for the people in Louisiana that need it most."
Carbo said Edwards will make a fourth pitch for a minimum wage hike in the legislative session that begins in April.
"Louisianans work just as hard in these other states that are increasing the minimum wage," he said. "Their pay should reflect their hard work because the current wage isn’t nearly enough."
Influential business interest groups, including the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, have strongly opposed attempts to increase the minimum wage in Louisiana, arguing that it takes decision-making abilities from business owners.
Dawn Starns, state director for NFIB, said her group will continue to fight the proposal next year.
"Our members haven't budged on it," she said. "Wages are going up on their own because people are able to pay them ... You have to let the market respond how it's going to."
"A mandate on wage requirement is not something that our business owners feel government should be involved in," she said.
Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, has carried multiple minimum wage bills that eventually stalled out in the State Capitol.
"I'm hopeful going forward the more and more success we see in other states, Louisiana will recognize that it's nearly impossible for people to survive on minimum wage," Carter said Wednesday. "It's very frustrating to see our neighboring states in key areas are beating us to the punch."
Carter's previous proposals, which were backed by Edwards, called for a more modest increase — $1.25 over two years to $8.50 an hour – that would now be dwarfed by Arkansas and Missouri's new levels, so it's likely he'll go farther next year.
"You have to go a little larger now," Carter said, adding that other living costs, including food and housing, have continued to rise as the Legislature rejected minimum wage hikes over the past three years.
"I think most people recognize that everything is going up but people's pay," Carter said. "We can't continue to expect the working poor and working people to live on that either."
Carter said he hasn't yet decided what amount he will target.
"I think I can make a compelling argument that a dollar and a quarter isn't sufficient," he said.
The House Labor Committee last year soundly rejected a $15 an hour proposal in a 9-3 vote, despite pleas from minimum-wage earners who filled the committee room to tell their lawmakers how they've struggled to make ends meet.
Carter said he believes that a higher minimum wage would have a ripple effect of quality of life improvements for Louisiana families – ultimately lifting people off of welfare programs, deterring crime and encouraging residents to remain in the state.
"In a civilized society, we should be able to provide for our workers by giving them a living wage," he said.
But the business groups that oppose a minimum wage hike argue that a it ultimately could disrupt employee wages up the chain.
"Minimum wage is an entry-level position wage," Starns said. "Once you increase the bottom wage it requires an increase on the next level above that and the level above that."
"Business owners can only withstand so much," she added.
Carter's most recent proposal that failed in the Senate on a 17-21 vote would have automatically increased the minimum wage to $8 an hour in 2019 and $8.50 an hour in 2020. A separate bill from Carter that never made to the Senate floor would have allowed voters to decide whether the minimum wage should be increased to those levels. It was held up in a Senate money committee that had been pressed with addressing a potential looming budget shortfall.
Starns couldn't say outright if NFIB would oppose a ballot referendum on the minimum wage.
"We'd have to look at it," she said.