Wolf could secure minimum wage hike, with big concessions
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Years of pressure by Pennsylvania Democrats could yield a state minimum wage increase this year, although it likely will require substantial concessions in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing hiking the hourly minimum from $7.25 to $12. That would be the nation’s highest.
He is tying the proposal to his budget plan as a way to provide more tax revenue and help fix Pennsylvania’s deficit-riddled finances.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have grudgingly left the door open to a minimum wage increase, the first in eight years, now that most of the nation has moved past Pennsylvania. But they aren’t necessarily rushing to embrace the idea.
Many still insist an increase would force business owners to cut back on hiring, hours and benefits, and would tighten the job market for unskilled workers. Others are quietly predicting an increase could squeak through — albeit at a much lower figure — while serving as a bargaining chip in this summer’s budget negotiations.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he would rather see the federal government deal with the issue, but suggested a congressional lack of action is forcing the state’s hand.
“It’s an absolute problem of governing when the federal government has ceded the federal minimum wage,” Scarnati said. “They like to be involved in every state issue that they can get their fingers in, but when it comes to this, they have not done anything.”
Twenty-nine states have increased their minimum wages above the national $7.25 an hour minimum, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. The hourly rate ranges from $7.50 in New Mexico to $11.50 in Washington, D.C.
Every neighbor of Pennsylvania has increased its minimum wage — from $8.15 an hour in Ohio to $9.70 an hour in New York. And voters in some predominantly Republican states — Nebraska and South Dakota, for instance — have backed a minimum wage hike.
Pennsylvania’s constitution does not allow voter initiatives to raise the minimum wage, and state law also does not allow municipalities to set a higher minimum wage. Meanwhile, the wage elsewhere will keep rising. Eighteen states have indexed their minimum wage to inflation to keep pace with the cost of living, according to the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute.
When Wolf ran for office in 2014, he supported increasing Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $10.10 over a two-year period and indexing it to inflation. His revised proposal of $12 an hour reflects what he thinks is now fair, said Wolf’s press secretary J.J. Abbott. The proposal still includes tying the wage to inflation.
“Given the status of a lot of people following the recession, struggling to work full time and make a wage that supports their families, we feel this is a fair place for the minimum wage to be set,” Abbott said.
The governor’s office says a $12 minimum would also flush an extra $95 million in income taxes into the state treasury, an assertion that Republicans question. Democratic lawmakers also argue the higher wage will save money in taxpayer-paid benefits programs.
Prominent business advocacy groups still oppose a hike in the state minimum wage, and rank-and-file Republicans say they have not had caucus-wide discussions on the issue. But they haven’t been silent on the issue.
Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, plans to reintroduce legislation to raise the minimum wage to $8.75 an hour in three 50-cent increments over three years. The proposal last year drew five Republican co-sponsors, including two members of the Senate GOP leadership.
Wagner’s support is notable: He is running for his party’s nomination to challenge Wolf’s re-election bid in 2018 and he has been instrumental in funding the campaigns of Republican lawmakers in recent years.
A number of moderate Republicans support an increase in the minimum wage, perhaps on the order of neighboring states. Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware, said he thinks Republicans could accept a negotiated increase as part of a broader budget deal with Wolf. Republican demands could include a reduction in corporate taxes.
“If a compromise is to be struck, and part of it is increasing the minimum wage a modest amount, I think that’s something we would consider,” he said.