A minimum wage debate is expected to heat up again next year when state lawmakers return for the start of the 2014 legislative session.
The state minimum wage is $6.15 an hour, but most workers earn at least the federal minimum of $7.25. Democrats in charge of the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton's office want workers to be paid more, but to pass a bill they will have to find a number they can agree on -- which proved to be surprisingly elusive at the close of the 2013 session.
The House passed a bill to set the rate at $9.50 an hour by 2015, with automatic future increases based on inflation. But the Senate passed legislation to increase the minimum wage to $7.75 an hour by 2015. To reach a compromise next session, House and Senate negotiators will have to close the wide gap.
State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the chief sponsor of the House bill, said that could happen quickly because a minimum wage bill would not require new committee hearings or a new floor vote. Winkler said a worthwhile increase must be substantial and significant, and he's convinced the House position, or something close to it, will ultimately prevail.
"Just raising it a little bit and saying that our work is done and leaving it alone for a number of years will really not deliver much of a benefit to the average Minnesota worker," he said. "So when we're talking about a $9.50 minimum wage and giving a raise to 360,000 Minnesota workers, I think the Senate will eventually see that a significant minimum wage increase will be good for the economy and good for the state."
Minnesota lawmakers last increased the state's minimum wage in 2005.
Winkler said he's encouraged that a coalition of labor unions, faith organizations and nonprofits recently launched a campaign in support of a $9.50 per hour minimum wage.
"Just raising it a little bit and saying that our work is done and leaving it alone for a number of years will really not deliver much of a benefit to the average Minnesota worker."
Dayton also favors the higher rate.
"The $9.50 is in line with what I've said for years -- a living wage, which enables somebody who's working full time to make an income that would permit her or him to keep a family of four at the poverty level," Dayton said. "Then with more experience and more training, move up the wage scale and be able to achieve through their work the American dream, which is what I think the purpose of raising the wage is really about."
But Democrats in the Senate remain concerned about unintended consequences of the bigger increase.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk insists that he supports raising the minimum wage. He just wants to make sure businesses in border communities and small towns aren't harmed.
Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he's especially worried about the potential affect of a high minimum wage on rural nursing homes that are already struggling to stay in business.
"I tell you, I don't want to be the person responsible for having nursing homes in small communities go out of business and patients displaced and moved maybe 50 miles or more away from their loved ones," Bakk said. "So, I think we've got to give that very careful consideration."
Business groups oppose an increase, and many restaurant owners are still pushing for an allowance to pay a lower minimum wage to their employees who collect tips.
Republican lawmakers contend that they want to help low-wage workers make more money, but they reject the DFL minimum wage strategy.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said he would rather find ways to help businesses and the economy grow.
"When the economy is booming and Minnesota is attracting more job creators and growing more jobs, businesses have to compete for employees," said Daudt, R-Crown. "That's an environment that will mean they will have to pay employees more to get the employees they need, which benefits every Minnesotan. That's what we believe is the answer to solving the problem of lower and middle income Minnesotans making more money."