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Even as a public campaign continues to place a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage on the Nov. 7 ballot, most of the real action is taking place behind the scenes.
Business interests, tamed by the likelihood that the proposal will be approved by voters, are pushing for a compromise — a law to accomplish the wage increase to be passed in a special legislative session that could begin as early as this month.
Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party and its gubernatorial candidate, Mike Beebe, are indicating their tacit support for such a deal.
“Lots of people have approached us with different alternatives and ideas,” said Rev. Stephen Copley, the chairman of the non-partisan Give Arkansas a Raise Now coalition, which is collecting signatures for the ballot initiative. “Certainly one of those ideas is ‘I’d like to see that in a special session.’ If that happened, we’d certainly be willing to listen to any firm offer that was put out there.”
The proposed constitutional amendment would increase the minimum wage in Arkansas by $1 an hour (from $5.15 to $6.15) effective Jan. 1, 2007. Starting January 1, 2008, and each January 1 thereafter, the minimum wage would be adjusted based on changes in the Consumer Price Index.
According to a spokesman, Gov. Mike Huckabee is not considering putting a similar measure on the agenda of the special session that he may soon call to deal primarily with pressing education issues. “There has been no discussion of [adding a minimum wage bill],” said Huckabee press secretary Alice Stewart. “No one has made any requests yet.”
Beebe, however, is hinting at possible legislative action that could pre-empt the amendment.
“If [the amendment proposal] causes the General Assembly and the whole world to stop their opposition to go get it passed, wonderful,” Beebe told the Arkansas Times. Past legislative attempts to raise the minimum wage, including a bill introduced last year by state Rep. Pam Adcock, have failed to even get out of committee in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate.
Beebe also said at a March 2 AARP event in Little Rock, “Now, without going too far here — I don’t know how much I can say — I think there are some genuine interests by all kinds of parties to see if there is a way to reach some sort of an agreement to implement a minimum-wage-hike statute, and that’s as far as I can say right now. I can’t tell you anymore than that, and I’m not being coy. I just don’t want, I just — you know — it’s preliminary.”
Beebe stresses that his position on the amendment has never changed. He says he continues to support it, but that he would prefer a statutory solution if one could be achieved instead. Those remarks have been interpreted by some supporters of the wage increase, however, as damaging to the amendment drive or a way for Beebe to appeal to both supporters and opponents of the amendment. Beebe insists that is not his intent.
One question is whether such a law would incorporate the inflation adjustment that is part of the proposed constitutional amendment. The business lobby could try to get that provision dropped in exchange for a larger one-time increase in the minimum wage. Amendment supporters might be willing to make that compromise because it would spare them the expense involved in gathering signatures, fighting possible challenges and campaigning for the measure.
In what could be a play for time to allow such a deal to be fashioned, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, Jason Willett, will recommend at the party’s March 18 state committee meeting that county committees have the opportunity to discuss the proposed amendment before the party officially endorses it.
The steering committee for Give Arkansas a Raise Now, expecting the endorsement vote to take place on March 18, first learned of Willett’s decision at their March 7 meeting.
Willett says that an endorsement vote on March 18 could happen, but he prefers allowing local party activists to weigh in first. That would mean an endorsement would not come until the next state committee meeting, which will probably be in late June, according to the party’s communications director, Bart Haynie. This would be after the May primary, traditionally a fruitful time to gather signatures, though Copley says his petition drive doesn’t hinge on primary day signature gathering.
The deadline for gathering the necessary 80,570 signatures from registered Arkansas voters is July 7.
“I’m in no way, form or fashion trying to delay anything,” Willett said. “It’s a matter of process that before the party brings something before the state committee, to allow them to discuss it with their county committees.”
Both Beebe and Willett say their nuanced positions are not connected.
“I have not had one conversation with Mike Beebe looking at that,” he said. “I understand he is looking at that from a different angle and I understand that.”
Beebe said didn’t know anything about the possible endorsement of the initiative at the March 18 meeting. He said he has already endorsed the amendment proposal and thinks the Democratic Party should do the same and help gather signatures to get it on the ballot. But, he added, “I assume the party would take the same stance I would take.”
Although it’s not on the agenda, the state committee may end up endorsing the ballot initiative on March 18 after all.
“My recommendation will be to have the state committee take it back to the counties,” Willett said. “At the same time, the state committee can make any decision they see fit on Saturday. I guarantee someone is going to bring up a motion to go ahead and endorse it.
“I wholeheartedly support us, as Democrats, raising the minimum wage,” he added. “It’s as important to the Democratic Party as electing a governor.”