Local pols target minimum wage

By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Staff Writer

With primary elections less than six weeks away, Hyde Park representatives at the state and city level are pushing for a higher minimum wage.

Since last fall, state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25) has been sponsoring a bill that would raise the Illinois minimum wage, and just last week Alds. Will Burns (4th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) lent their support for a non-binding primary referendum calling for a $15 wage.

“A lot of people at the minimum wage are living in poverty,” said Currie, chief co-sponsor of HB 3718. The bill, along with another introduced in the Senate in January 2013, SB 68, would raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.65 an hour by 2016. It calls for a series of wage hikes, beginning with a $1 raise in October, followed by a 75 cent increase in July 2015 and a 65 cent one a year later.

Bringing Illinois’ minimum wage to at least $10 is a goal for Gov. Pat Quinn, who reiterated his support less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage in Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

Like many other wage increase advocates, Currie says inflation has taken its toll on the value of the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage hit its inflation-adjusted peak in 1968, when it was worth $10.71 in 2013 dollars. That figure is higher than any state’s current minimum wage, and almost 50 percent more than the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

HB 3718 was introduced last October by state Rep. Arthur Turner (D-9) and is currently in the House Rules Committee. The bill was a strategic move to bring the minimum wage discussion to the House, according to Currie. But she said she wouldn’t be surprised if the Senate voted on a bill first.

“I think that the coalition will have a lot to say about when and whether and how we try to move the bill forward,” Currie said. “I don’t think the people who are part of the coalition that would like to see an increase in the minimum wage are anxious to have the proposal in the Illinois House fall on its face.”

Currie says she would support tying the minimum wage to inflation, pointing to a similar policy approved by New Jersey voters last fall. Illinois state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-4) — who introduced SB 68 —also brought forth legislation in 2011 that would have tied the minimum wage to inflation, but it floundered in the Senate through the end of the previous General Assembly.

Some Illinois Republicans and business coalitions oppose any increase to the state’s minimum wage; the Illinois Chamber of Commerce fears a $10 minimum wage would curtail job opportunities in a state already suffering from the country’s third highest unemployment rate. In early January, Republican gubernatorial front-runner Bruce Rauner advocated cutting the state’s minimum wage by $1 to make the state more competitive, but then denied and reversed his position in support of a $10 federal minimum wage.

Others, however, say raising the minimum wage would be a boon to the economy, including Gov. Quinn, who cited a 2011 Chicago Federal Reserve study showing that households of minimum wage workers who receive a dollar raise spend $2,800 over the next year. Currie says she expects few jobs to disappear — if at all — and that at best the wage hike could benefit the Illinois economy.

“People who are at the minimum wage are not going to put the extra money under their mattress,” she said. “They’re going to be spending it right here at home — at the grocery store, at the drugstore, and the retail shop.”

She added, “I don’t think that the last two increases in the last minimum wage have had a deleterious effect in Hyde Park.”

Last Wednesday, Burns joined several other colleagues — including Hairston and members of her Progressive Reform Caucus — in supporting a non-binding primary election referendum that calls for a $15 minimum wage for Chicago workers employed by companies with an annual revenue of $50 million or more. The referendum is part of city activists’ “Fight for 15” campaign.

“We have a demand economy, based on people buying goods and services. And if folks are too poor to buy those goods and services, it will slowly eat at the growth of our economy,” Burns said.

The Alderman, who is up for re-election in 2015, said politics had no impact on his stance — something some observers say has motivated Obama to tackle the wealth gap.

Senate President John Cullerton said he expects the Illinois General Assembly to pass a wage increase this year, which would be the state’s first since 2010. But the passage of Chicago’s non-binding $15 wage referendum would only serve as a symbolic victory.

“I supported the referendum because I think the Fight for 15 campaign will help to educate voters and start a dialogue,” Burns said.

j.bishku@hpherald.com