Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

WED 3-29-6 EDITORIAL >> Laborís strange tribunes

Gov. Huckabee has another compelling reason to call the legislature into special session next week: the minimum wage.
Do not be mistaken. The governor and his party are not champions of a minimum wage and neither, for that matter, is the Arkansas Legislature, though it is dominated by Democrats. But they are all united behind raising the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 an hour. Motives are mixed. If Huckabee calls the legislature into session, it is the one proposal certain of enactment.

Voters are not likely to look behind the motives of all these latter-day tribunes of the working stiff, but that is just as well. The result is the same: a little relief for 127,000 or so of the stateís poorest laborers and their families.

They will owe their good fortune not to the governor or the lawmakers who will make it happen, but to a coalition headed by a North Little Rock Methodist preacher. The group is circulating petitions to put the minimum wage into the Arkansas Constitution. Their amendment would raise the minimum wage in Arkansas to $6.15 the first of the year and then adjust it each year to inflation. Polls show overwhelming support for the measure. Similar wage floors have passed easily in other states from Nevada to Florida.

Arkansas business and political leaders do not want automatic minimum-wage raises in the Constitution, so they propose to raise it immediately by statute if the labor coalition agrees to stop their petition drive. An agreement was struck, but it lasts only until the middle of April.

The constitutional strategy has worked around the country. Since Republicans took over Congress and most state legislatures in the 1990s, the minimum wage flattened. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is back at 1970 levels. But the threat of constitutionally mandated wage floors has brought business groups and even Republicans around to a proposition that they loathe philosophically.

Michiganís Democratic governor just signed a liberal minimum-wage bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature. It will raise the floor in that state from $5.15 to $6.95 on Oct. 1 ó 80 cents an hour above the Arkansas proposal óand require further raises through 2008. Labor supporters agreed to halt their drive for a constitutional amendment similar to the one circulated here.

But there is a more compelling reason for Republicans than keeping a pro-worker law out of state constitutions. They view the petition drives for constitutional amendments as a backdoor way to turn out voters sympathetic to Democrats at the general election this fall. The amendment campaigns seem to have that effect, in the same way that the gay-marriage amendment campaigns ginned up the vote for Republican candidates, from George Bush down, in 2004. Republicans were beneficiaries of the gay-marriage amendment drive that year. They do not want to give Democrats a similar advantage in 2006 by leaving a wage amendment on the ballot.

All those minimum-wage workers at nursing homes, processing houses and food emporia will not ask why the people in power suddenly looked out for them.