Where is the R.I. Minimum Wage debate?

May 16, 2014

While economists and media outlets from Providence to Seattle engage in hand-wringing over inequality, Rhode Island’s political leaders seem to have no solutions at all. Smith Hill is bogged down in ridiculous debates over the master lever and the never-ending tsunami that is 38 Studios. Yet, we don’t hear much of anything about raising the state’s minimum wage from the current $8 an hour rate.

Labor leaders, such as AFL-CIO President George Nee, and a few in the state’s low-income advocacy community, speak about a minimum wage hike, but lawmakers are largely silent on this topic. This isn’t the case in other states, including our New England neighbors.

Vermont’s minimum wage will increase from $8.73 per hour to $10.50 over the four years under legislation approved by the House and Senate in the Green Mountain State. ``I will be proud to sign it,’’ said Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The final version of the measure won nearly unanimous support of both legislative chambers. Vermont is the seventh state to enact a minimum wage increase this year and the fourth to set the rate higher than $10 per hour. Delaware and West Virginia lawmakers raised the minimum wage to more than $8 an hour. Minnesota hiked the minimum wage for most large firms to $9.50.

And Hawaii, Connecticut and Maryland all established a floor wage of $10.10 an hour, the threshold favored by President Barack Obama.

The $10.10 threshold has become a goal for many in the labor movement because it would almost restore the buying power that minimum wage employees have lost to inflation over the past 40 years or so.

Seattle has led the way for local city wage ordinances by establishing  minimum wage of $15 an hour, phased in over the next few years. Other states, including Massachusetts, are considering minimum wage increases via statewide referenda or legislative action.

Rhode Island’s government research groups, such as the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council,  and the economists who study our state’s business climate have been been mostly silent on the minimum wage issue. Ditto for the Democrats who control both Assembly chambers.

Might be interesting to study what the impact on R.I. will be when Massachusetts and Connecticut have substantially higher minimum wages and draw workers from Rhode Island to jobs in their bordering communities. The business community loves to kvetch about making sure taxes in R.I  in line (or lower) than Massachusetts or Connecticut. Well, what about wages?

If new crowned House Speaker Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston, wants to prove that he and his new team are not the DINOS that critics claim, one way would be to deliver to Gov. Linc Chafee’s desk a meaningful minimum wage hike measure.

So far, the only politicians  vocally calling for raising the minimum wage are the three major Democrats – Angel  Taveras, Gina Raimondo and Clay Pell – who are campaigning for governor. Maybe it is about time the Smith Hill Dems, who can actually do something about this issue in the current  session, engage in a serious debate on this important issue. And maybe the media outlets that have been doing a fine job describing inequality could investigate some solutions.