Columns » Jay Barth

The people rule: looking ahead to 2014 initiated acts

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Last week, a proposal by state Rep. Butch Wilkins (D-Bono) to raise the state's minimum wage was easily, and unsurprisingly, defeated in a House committee. However, thanks to Arkansas's initiative process, Arkansas voters may yet see the proposal again in the fall of 2014. It is exactly the type of ballot question that could have ramifications for other important races on the 2014 ballot.

Arkansas's state minimum wage is $6.25 per hour, a dollar below the federal minimum wage, making the state one of only four with a state minimum wage lower than the federal minimum. In most cases, the federal wage prevails, but when businesses' revenues are under $500,000 annually the state wage kicks in.

Wilkins' proposal, applicable to employers with four or more employees, would have pushed the state wage up to $8.25, making Arkansas one of 20 states with a minimum wage law higher than the federal minimum. Republican opponents deemed the proposal a job-killer, especially for the most vulnerable in the work force. For that reason, former GOP legislator Dan Greenberg termed the measure "cruelty in the guise of compassion."

In 2006, a coalition of labor organizations and faith-based groups began collecting signatures on an initiative to raise the minimum wage above the federal wage and to permanently tie it to inflation. Because of the fear that the measure would pass if it got to the ballot, business interests prodded Gov. Mike Huckabee to allow an increase in the wage (without the cost-of-living component) in a special session of the legislature, where it passed easily.

Following the defeat of the Wilkins' proposal, some of those that came together in 2006 have begun to talk anew about a 2014 initiative to raise the state wage. While the measure would face opposition from the business sector, especially the hospitality industry, the issue is a popular one in Arkansas, according to previous polling data. If proponents could pull together a grassroots operation and get the signatures to place it on the ballot (a major "if"), they likely would be well-positioned to gain voter approval. In recent years, similar efforts have been successful in a number of states and cities across the country.

If it reaches the ballot in 2014, a minimum wage proposal almost certainly will have company in a state with an initiative process that is one of the most user-friendly in the nation. (It should be noted that a variety of bills introduced in the legislative session could make the signature gathering process more difficult in years ahead.) It already is clear that medical marijuana advocates will return with a slightly altered version of their proposal that almost won in 2012, significantly exceeding expectations. Prepared if the General Assembly fails to grapple with state ethics reform in this session, the group "Regnat Populus" has already begun collecting signatures for the major ethics package that was quite popular with voters, according to polling last year, but began too late to find a place on the 2012 ballot.

These types of measures not only poll well, they also have the power to push turnout higher among different, but overlapping, groups of Arkansas voters. The voters moved by a higher state minimum wage would not be exactly the same voters moved by ethics reform or by permitting medical use of marijuana. But polling data suggest that all of these voters will be likely to support more progressive candidates over more conservative candidates. This trio of initiated acts could help progressives mirror recent conservative successes in bringing socially traditional voters to the polls, first in 2004 through the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and then in 2008 through Act 1, the ban on adoption and foster care by cohabitating couples.

While Arkansas appears to be shifting into an ever more difficult electoral environment for Democrats and the current legislature is anything but healthy turf for progressive ideas, some of those notions, such as the soundly defeated minimum wage raise, remain stubbornly popular with Arkansas voters. Smart use of the state's tool for direct democracy could make both good policy and good politics — driving progressive, populist turnout higher, while leading to victories for Democrats at the ballot box in 2014.

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