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Days of Our Minimum-Wage Workers' Lives

'The hour glass is running out of sand ...'

By Cheryl Smith, Fri., April 27, 2007

Days of Our Minimum-Wage Workers' Lives

ANNOUNCER

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our minimum-wage workers' lives.

[MELODRAMATIC MUSIC PLAYS]

Last time we tuned in to the minimum-wage raise debate, we were clinging to the edges of our seats, wondering when stubborn congressional negotiators would sit down to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of minimum-wage legislation. Both propose raising the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, the first increase in more than nine years; however, the Senate's version includes $8.3 billion in tax breaks, while the House's version only includes $1.8 billion. The Associated Press reported back in February that "Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said House and Senate negotiators could reconcile differences in the bills within two or three weeks," quoting Baucus as saying, "The minimum wage provision is going to trump all of this and is going to drive us to get this thing done pretty quickly."

Well, several weeks have passed and negotiations still haven't occurred.

"The theatre of voting for the raise and getting credit with the public seems to have been more important than actually getting money into the pockets of the working poor," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank that focuses primarily on labor issues, in an e-mail to the Chronicle. "There's no good excuse for the Democrats' failure to work out the tax package that's part of the MW deal. They could have simply split the difference between the House and Senate. The Democrats don't want to have a big ugly fight with the Senate Republicans and multiple cloture votes that they might lose. But if that's what it takes to embarrass the opponents of a minimum wage increase and wake up the public about what's going on, they should do it."

Meanwhile, the list of states that have gotten tired of waiting on the feds to do something continues to grow, as EPI analyst Liana Fox notes in a recent policy brief. "Since the beginning of the year three states have, for the first time, raised their state minimum wages above the federal level of $5.15 per hour: Iowa ($7.25 by 2008), Kentucky ($7.25 by 2009), and New Mexico ($7.50 by 2009). That brings the count of states that have raised their minimum wages since the beginning of 2006 to an even 20," Fox says. "This has raised the wages of over 7.5 million workers. Thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia now have minimum wages above the federal level."

Of course, Texas isn't one of those states, and the chance that it will become one is growing more unlikely by the day, as only a month remains in the 80th legislative session. The identical companion bills of Houston Democrats Rodney Ellis and Senfronia ThompsonSenate Bill 95 and House Bill 451, respectively – the only minimum-wage-related companion bills filed this session and therefore the legislation initially considered to have the most promise of becoming law, appear to have gotten stuck – SB 95 in the Business and Commerce Committee and HB 451 in Economic Development. HB 451 received a hearing, but SB 95 hasn't even gotten that far. "It's hard to swallow," said Jeremy Warren, spokesman for Ellis.

Any hopes of getting a minimum-wage raise in Texas are now pinned on HB 49 – a joint bill authored by Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, along with Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont; Robert Puente, D-San Antonio; Harold Dutton, D-Houston; and Thompson – which makes the radical proposal of increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 over a two-year period. Out of the handful of minimum-wage-related bills filed this session, HB 49 has waded the furthest through the legislative process. But after it was stuck in Calendars for a few weeks, committee members voted on April 19 not to place it on the House calendar.

Despite the setback, a Chavez staffer said her office remains hopeful that the bill will get on the calendar before lawmakers run out of time. "It has another 30 days," the staffer said. When asked about HB 49, a staffer with the office of Houston Republican Beverly Woolley, chair of Calendars, said Woolley generally doesn't comment on bills under consideration. On the slim chance that the bill makes it out of the House, Ellis will more than likely pick it up in the Senate, said the Center for Public Policy Priorities' Don Baylor.

"The hour glass is running out of sand, and Texas workers desperately need a raise," said Baylor, echoing the comments of EPI's Eisenbrey. "Every week of delay is tens of millions of dollars denied to poor workers who need the money."

ANNOUNCER

Stay tuned for the next Days of our Minimum-Wage Workers' Lives.

For more on the minimum wage, see "Hope on Minimum-Wage Horizon," Feb. 2, 2007.

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