BOISE, Idaho — As neighboring states lift minimum wages, a group aiming to hike the lowest legal pay in Idaho to $9.80 an hour by 2017 said Tuesday it has collected one-ninth of the signatures necessary to get the measure on the November ballot.
However, Raise Idaho's Anne Nesse said she's enlisted unions and advocacy organizations to accelerate the effort before the April 30 deadline for filing signatures.
A total of 53,751 signatures of registered voters are needed to qualify the measure for a vote. Nesse said 6,000 have been collected so far.
The move is opposed by retail groups that want to keep Idaho's minimum wage at $7.25, the federal amount.
Nesse of Coeur d'Alene, an unsuccessful state House candidate last year, said the move has been spurred by outrage over Idaho's status as the state with the most minimum-wage jobs per capita in America.
An increased minimum wage is "not going to cure all poverty, but it certainly makes it possible to live, buy nutritious foods, shelter and transportation to work — all those things you need to live to be a respectable person," Nesse said.
If the proposal succeeds, the minimum would increase over the next four years then be indexed to inflation. Wages for tipped restaurant employees would jump to $5.90 an hour, from $3.25.
Idaho's minimum wage was last boosted in 2009 along with the federal minimum. Democrats in the state Legislature have failed repeatedly to hike it further.
The state Department of Labor said the percentage of Idaho employees making $7.25 an hour jumped to 7.7 in 2012, meaning an estimated 31,000 of the state's 404,000 hourly workers were paid the minimum rate. Nationally, the trend is headed in the other direction. Only 4.7 percent of hourly workers made the minimum last year, down from 5.2 percent in 2011.
Minimum wages have been rising in some states bordering Idaho. Another increase is set for Jan. 1.
Washington, with the nation's highest minimum wage, will go to $9.32 an hour while Oregon, the second-highest, increases to $9.10. Montana is lifting its minimum wage to $7.90 an hour. Boosts also will come in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont.
United Vision for Idaho, an advocacy group, and AFL-CIO union leaders have joined the signature-gathering push in Idaho, hoping to use their statewide networks to reach more registered voters and avoid missing the April 30 deadline.
"Basically, Anne is passing the baton to the organizations that have the capacity to get this done," said Adrienne Evans, director of United Vision for Idaho. "It is so fundamental to the mission of the AFL-CIO and UVI: That we are standing up for a livable wage that boosts our economy."
Lobbyist Pam Eaton, who represents the Idaho Retailers Association as well as hotels and restaurants, fears a successful effort could drive up costs for businesses already operating on razor-thin margins.
Government-mandated wage hikes dent the economy and reduce employers' incentives to expand, Eaton said. Meanwhile, prices for goods could rise, making them less affordable and canceling the promised benefits, she said.
"If businesses think they have some really great employees, they're going to pay them more," Eaton said. "The market works."
Beyond Idaho, the issue is expected to figure in the national political debate, with Democrats — including President Barack Obama — seeing it as a way to help low-wage earners and appeal to voters ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. In March, Obama called for a $9 an hour federal minimum.
Federal lawmakers from Idaho don't back such a national wage hike.
"Given the continued uncertainty over Obamacare's massive costs and this administration's unending regulatory appetite, it would be irresponsible to heap even more government-sponsored expenses onto the backs of our nation's businesses," U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho said minimum wages should be left to the states to determine.
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State Rep. Phylis King, a Boise Democrat who unsuccessfully championed the most recent proposed minimum wage hike in Idaho in the 2013 Legislature, said she's watching Nesse's initiative closely. Its fortunes will determine whether she'll introduce another bill this year.
"If it doesn't look like they're going to be able to get enough signatures, I will consider it," King said, conceding it would again be largely symbolic, since 81 percent of the Idaho Capitol's lawmakers are Republicans with little affinity for government mandates.