DES MOINES, Iowa — Democratic lawmakers say they're ready to introduce bills this session that would increase Iowa's minimum wage, but the effort faces hurdles because of a divided Legislature and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad's other priorities.
Democrats in the House and Senate are looking to raise the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour — the federal minimum — to $10.10 an hour. State lawmakers last agreed on a minimum wage increase in 2007, two years before the federal wage reached its current level.
"No one can raise a family on $14,500 a year," Sen. Thomas Courtney, a Democrat from Burlington, told lawmakers Thursday, referencing the average annual income a person makes on the state's minimum wage.
Democrats have introduced minimum wage legislation in the last few sessions with little success, but lawmakers say this year could be different, given the national momentum. Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia have a minimum wage higher than the federal standard, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and more than 20 of those wage hikes took effect Jan. 1 through ballot measures, new laws and indexed increases.
Branstad has been vocal about other priorities, including anti-bully legislation and expanded broadband Internet in Iowa. But he did not reference minimum wage during his Condition of the State address Tuesday. He signed into law a minimum wage increase in 1989.
"I always reserve judgment on bills until I see them in their final form," he said Thursday. "I have signed an increase in the minimum wage in the past, so I'm not ruling that out."
Iowa is almost completely surrounded by states with a minimum wage above its own, including Nebraska and South Dakota's new increased wages this year. That may create some pressure on state lawmakers to act, according to David Cooper, an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
"Workers in Iowa may start to feel more strongly that they're getting the short end of the stick, if everyone across the border is getting paid more than them," he said.
But the Democratic-controlled Senate will need support from the Republican-majority House. Speaker Kraig Paulsen, of Hiawatha, has repeatedly indicated that he's more interested in funding job creation and worker training programs and believes Iowa residents earning minimum wage want better training to get jobs with better pay.
"I'd like to give those people an opportunity to make more than $10.10 an hour," he said. "We're going to focus our attention on growing Iowa's economy and being part of encouraging employers to bring jobs to the state that exceed the minimum wage."
Rep. Bruce Hunter, a Democrat from Des Moines, said there are parents working at a minimum wage who may not have the time to get skills training.
"We've got to take care, first of all, to make sure that our single mothers and our families that are working at a minimum wage are not living in poverty," he said Thursday.
It's hard to track how many Iowa residents receive minimum wage, according to the Iowa Policy Project. But the nonprofit that monitors state policy says more than 300,000 people would see an increase in their pay if the minimum wage was raised to $10.10 an hour.
A year ago, a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll found that more than 70 percent of Americans said they were in favor of raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10. That was before legislatures in 10 states and Washington, D.C., enacted increases during the 2014 session, nine states saw an indexed increase and four states approved wage increases with ballot measures in November.
Iowa doesn't allow voters to submit ballot measures. Still, Cooper said, Iowa lawmakers may need to think differently about the issue this session.
"The way the national landscape is moving, we're reaching a point where any state that's not considering a minimum wage law," he said, "lawmakers are going to have to ask themselves, 'Why should the workers in my state be paid less than the workers in other states doing the same job?'"
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