Wisconsin Representatives Bucking the Tide on Wage Laws

Monday, February 17, 2014 at 6:09 PM by

In Contrast to WI, Higher Minimum Wage Has Broad Bipartisan Support in West Virginia 

State and local policymakers in many parts of the country are coming to the conclusion that too many workers get paid too little, and they are pushing for higher wage standards for workers.  Yet in Wisconsin an Assembly Committee moved with great speed last week to advance legislation blocking county or municipal ordinances that set a minimum wage for contractors doing work financed in part with state or federal dollars.  

The new legislation, AB 750, was introduced on Tuesday, Feb. 11, then got a public hearing Wednesday and was voted on in the committee Thursday – just a week after the Milwaukee County Board voted 12 to 6 for an ordinance requiring all contractors to pay at least $11.32 an hour.  That amount was chosen in part because that was the federal poverty level in 2013 for a family of four.   

The bill was developed to block implementation of that measure and a Milwaukee County residency ordinance approved almost 20 years, which aims to boost the percentage of workers on public contracts who reside within the county.  AB 750 would also invalidate or significantly restrict similar wage standards approved a number of years ago by Dane County and the City of Madison.  (Read more about the bill and committee amendment in this Legislative Council memo.)

In marked contrast to the developments in the Assembly last week, there is very strong bipartisan support for a higher minimum wage in West Virginia, where the House overwhelmingly voted on February 12th to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 by the start of 2016.  That measure passed 89 to 5, with the support of 38 of the 43 Republican members.

The hostility of conservative Wisconsin legislators to local wage ordinances also contrasts sharply with an unusual and ground-breaking minimum wage increase approved in December in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.  In a coordinated effort, the Washington city council and local officials in two suburban counties – Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland – all voted to increase the minimum wage to $11.50 over the next few years.  The three jurisdictions have a combined population of about 2.5 million people.  That sort of regional approach would also be precluded by AB 750.  

The author of AB 750, Rep. Kapenga, and other proponents of the bill contend that when state or federal dollars are involved it is unfair to have higher wages in some parts of the state than in others.  However, some areas have higher living costs, and regardless of whether Wisconsin allows local ordinances setting minimums, there will be higher rates of reimbursement and spending in some areas of the state and the nation than others.  

Another reason that the arguments for invalidating the local ordinances ring hollow for me is that I think it’s hypocritical for the state to contend there must be statewide uniformity in the minimum level of compensation for employers and contractors when our lawmakers haven’t been attempting to ensure that the state sets a livable minimum wage. 

The fate of AB 750 will say a lot about whether state lawmakers are willing to help make work pay for people employed in professions like home health care.  However, it might say even more about the fate of our state’s long tradition of local control. 

Jon Peacock

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