Columns » John Brummett

Maximum thought to minimum wage

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Join me as we begin to think through this proposal unveiled last week for a ballot issue in November 2006 to raise the state minimum wage by a buck an hour, to $6.15, still not enough to live on.

This is a proposal not for an initiated act, but for no less than an amendment to the state Constitution. Ideally, that’s a document providing a permanent set of principles and leaving details such as wages to the biennial enactment of legislation.

Our state Constitution makes too much of a fine mess already with its complex detail, such as Amendment 59, a tome of property tax esoterica that a state Supreme Court justice once called Godzilla. Now we have these people trying to put fast-food paychecks into it.

But this proposal turns out not to be as silly as that. The amendment would set a $6.15 wage initially, then apply an inflation calculator thereafter. That would make the wage organic. If you’re going to put today’s numbers in a constitution, it’s wise to let those numbers breathe.

Now, a word about the proposal’s advocates: Prominent in the coalition is the clergy. A Methodist preacher is out front talking about the immorality of hiring people and rewarding them with poverty-level compensation.

I’m wondering about mixing church and state. I’m thinking a religious leader should attend to the needy through his church’s benevolence, not by trying to impose public policy. I’m wondering how that’s different — exactly, procedurally — from some other preacher believing the gay lifestyle to be immoral and leading a drive to amend the Constitution to outlaw that.

Let’s move to the politics, quickly. A keen political observer e-mailed to make sure I understood that this proposal was strategic for the state’s Democrats. They want something on the general election ballot next year to turn out the poor working folks, since the poor working folks tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. That, you see, would enhance the likelihood that Mike Beebe, or conceivably Bill Halter, would save the state from the dreaded Asa Hutchinson. Or so the theory goes.

I had begun to accept that savvy premise when I read that Beebe, the Democratic front-runner, won’t take a position on the amendment.

In what has become a tiresome refrain, Beebe contended that he was prohibited from stating a position as long as the proposal was before his attorney general’s office for consideration of the technical sufficiency of its popular name and ballot title.

The time has come for Beebe to break these chains of attorney general’s responsibility and become an actual living, breathing gubernatorial candidate. Let’s all call or Finally, there are the odd emerging arguments against our becoming the 20th state with a minimum wage higher than the federal one.

Hutchinson says he opposes the amendment because the minimum wage should be raised nationwide and Arkansas might risk a competitive disadvantage if it mandated a higher wage. Ron Russell of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce says we’re mainly talking about the hospitality industry — burger flippers and motel housekeeping.

Are we to believe that McDonald’s and Burger King will pull out of Arkansas if we direct them to pay a dollar more per hour? Would that be a bad thing? Are we to believe that a convention bound for Little Rock because of the Clinton presidential library will go to Bossier City for gambling instead if there is a suspicion that our room rates are based in part on labor costs encompassing an hourly wage a buck higher? If higher wages hurt a state economically, then how can California and Connecticut and New York afford to pay higher wages in the first place?

If you base your economy on low wages, then what is the point of your economy, exactly?


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