Voters in Missouri and Arkansas will decide next week whether to do what Congress hasn’t done in more than a decade: boost the minimum wage.
Both states have referendums on the ballot on Nov. 6 that would bypass their legislatures to gradually raise the minimum wage employers are required to pay. In Missouri, Proposition B would increase it from the current rate of $7.85 per hour to $12 by 2023. In Arkansas, Issue 5 would increase it from $8.50 to $11 by 2021.
The Fairness Project, an advocacy group coordinating minimum wage campaigns around the country, said it is confident both ballot measures will pass, despite Missouri and Arkansas being red states. Support for higher minimum wages often crosses party lines, and such proposals have fared very well when put directly to voters in recent years.
“There are people in Washington bragging about the economy, but these initiatives make clear that voters aren’t satisfied,” Jonathan Schleifer, director of the Fairness Project, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “Congress hasn’t passed a minimum wage increase in what seems like an eternity.”
Not quite an eternity. George W. Bush was the last president to sign an increase, back in 2007. Congress has not approved another hike since then, leaving the federal rate at $7.25 per hour, which translates into an annual salary of about $16,000 for a full-time worker. The federal minimum wage prevails in any state that doesn’t mandate a higher one.
But in the meantime, more and more states have chosen to raise the minimum wage on their own, either through legislation or voter referendums. At this point, a majority of states now have higher minimum wages than the one mandated by Congress, due in large part to well-funded progressive campaigns pushing state legislation and ballot measures.
Neither Missouri nor Arkansas is new to minimum wage referendums. Missouri passed one in 2006, Arkansas in 2014. Still, David Cooper, a researcher at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said the new measures would get the states’ minimum wages closer to their historic highs.
“The proposed increases in Arkansas and Missouri are modest proposals that would simply get the minimum wage in those states back up to where it was in 1968” when adjusted for inflation, he argued.
The two proposals may appear tame when compared to what some other states have chosen to do. The minimum wage has already hit $11.50 per hour in Washington State ― currently the highest in the country ― and $11 in California and Massachusetts. The latter two states are scheduled to hit $15 per hour in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
“There are people in Washington bragging about the economy, but these initiatives make clear that voters aren’t satisfied. Congress hasn’t passed a minimum wage increase in what seems like an eternity.”
Both New York and Oregon will be above $11 next year. Unlike those other states, however, Arkansas and Missouri on average have among the lowest costs of living in the country, meaning a dollar goes further there.
Business groups have argued that significant increases will raise their labor costs enough to force them to cut back on hours and hiring. But their message has resonated more with Republican lawmakers than with voters.
Several GOP-controlled states have recently moved to pass so-called pre-emption laws, which forbid cities and counties from instituting higher minimum wages than the statewide level. Such was the case in Missouri, where last year the state’s Republican-dominated legislature implemented a law blocking local hikes.
The Missouri pre-emption law had the unusual effect of making the minimum wage go down in St. Louis, from $10 to $7.70, by wiping out a bill recently passed by city leaders. Shortly after, St. Louis workers told HuffPost that the pre-emption law motivated them to push for a statewide raise by referendum in an effort to tie legislators’ hands.
But Carl Walz, the campaign manager for Raise Up Missouri, the main group funding the “yes” effort on Proposition B, said last year’s pre-emption law doesn’t figure much in the current campaign.
“From day one we have been very forward-focused,” said Walz, whose group has received more than $6 million from donors, most of it from the D.C.-based Sixteen Thirty Fund. “We are focusing on where we are at right now and telling the story of this reasonable, gradual increase.”
Backers of both the Missouri and Arkansas proposals seem to have recent history on their side. On election day in 2016, four states approved ballot measures hiking the minimum wage: Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington. Two years before that, four other states did the same, all of them conservative-leaning: Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota.
In the case of Arkansas, voters approved the 2014 measure by a two-to-one margin.