Minimum wage — how high will it go in Minnesota?

MARSHALL – After failing to get out of conference a year ago, the minimum wage debate will likely rise again at the state Capitol during the 2014 session, and this year, supporters of an increase to the state’s minimum wage are playing the gender card to drum up support for passage of legislation that will result in a boost to the minimum wage.

State Democrats are planning to push a package of bills aimed at dealing with barriers to economic success for women. In a guest column titled “Women deserve equal opportunities to succeed” sent out Thursday, Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said the legislation’s top priorities include closing the gender pay gap by requiring private businesses that contract with the state to report on pay equity within their workforce and increasing income for working Minnesotans and their families by boosting the minimum wage to $9.50.

Melin says raising the minimum wage to $9.50 would increase the income of more than 200,000 working women in Minnesota.

District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said he doesn’t have a problem with raising the minimum wage but feels that going up to $9.50 is too aggressive.

“I would certainly look at raising the minimum wage to the federal conformity level, but not to $9.50,” Dahms said. “I don’t have a problem with raising the minimum wage and have a lot of Republican friends that feel the same way, but we have to do it reasonably. I think we have to look past that and look at what we can do to help people get the jobs that pay more.”

The federal minimum wage is $7.25. Minnesota law dictates a $6.15 minimum per hour for large employers, but since it is one of the few states with a state minimum below the federal standard, most businesses are required to pay at least $7.25 an hour. Last year, the Minnesota Senate approved an increase to $7.75 by 2015, while the House voted to hike the minimum wage to $9.50 over two years.

“When you’re talking about minimum wage, you’re really talking about purchasing power,” said District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. “What’s happening nationally is families and individuals are facing increased energy prices, increased food prices, and they’re seeing their dollars buy less and less. Ultimately, that goes back to monetary policy at the federal level.”

Swedzinski said there is room for discussion about what businesses must pay their employees, but he isn’t sure raising the minimum wage is the best solution and said the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 or $9.50 might be too aggressive. He said if the government mandates a business pay its employees more, the government should help make up the difference. Times are tight for small and emerging businesses, just as they are for their employees, he said.

“We need to engage businesses, individuals and government in a real conversation,” he said. “But these unfunded mandates would drastically affect a lot of different places. I understand it’s not easy to make a living at minimum wage, but the goal is not to stay there for life.”

Dahms said raising the minimum wage to $9.50 would slow the state’s economy down and could raise unemployment numbers.

“Minimum wage is not a liveable wage, it wasn’t designed to be,” Dahms said. “It was designed to be a starter wage – that’s the way you need to look at that. The thing we hear is if we raise it to $9.50 it will increase people’s disposable income and they’ll spend more so the economy will get better, but what they’re not talking about is how we could see less jobs and more wage compression.”