LANSING - Michigan's minimum wage workers would see their pay jump from the current $5.15 an hour to $6.95 an hour beginning in October under legislation the Senate unanimously and surprisingly approved on Thursday. The House is expected to pass the bill next week, which would mark the first increase in Michigan's minimum wage in nine years.
Under SB 318, passed 35-0, the minimum wage would also jump to $7.15 an hour on July 1, 2007 and to $7.40 an hour on July 1, 2008. The initial increase alone would boost a minimum wage worker's annual pay - at 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year - by more than 34 percent, from $10,710 a year to $14,456.
But if a constitutional amendment boosting the state's minimum wage is approved by the voters, then the bill dictates the minimum wage would be set at the constitutional amendment's rate of $6.85 an hour. Senate Republicans trumpeted that the bill passed Thursday actually boosts the minimum wage more than the constitutional proposal.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm and legislative Democrats praised the action, saying it was long overdue. But while they urged the House to pass the bill, they also said it would not affect their support of the minimum wage petition drive.
"We have repeatedly called for an increase in the state's minimum wage, and today we are one step closer to raising the wages paid to tens of thousands of workers in this state," Granholm said.
Her Republican opponent, Dick DeVos, said in a press release that while he had not seen all the details of the proposal, its approach "is a good one. The minimum wage hasn't been increased in Michigan for nine years, and that is too long." But DeVos also said the major issue for the election is not the wages paid but that too many people do not have jobs.
Several business groups were left flustered by the action, saying they did not want the constitutional amendment enacted, but also saying the increase would kill jobs especially at very small businesses.
In fact, short-circuiting the constitutional amendment was at least part of the reason the Senate acted in such breathtaking fashion. Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (R-Wyoming) denied that trying to depress Democratic turnout in the November election was part of his motivation in taking the surprising action.
But, "there's no question about it," Sikkema told reporters after the Senate acted, the constitutional proposal "kind of focused my thinking" on the minimum wage issue.
It is bad policy to place a wage increase in the constitution, especially since it requires regular cost of living adjustments, Mr. Sikkema said, since those are issues the Legislature should decide.
Republicans have been unified in opposing a boost in the minimum wage as hurting the economy generally. And Mr. Sikkema said raising the wage is not without risks, especially for the hospitality industry in the state.
But this had been the second longest period since the state's minimum wage act was created in 1964 that the wage had not been increased, he said. Typically, "we act after the Congress has raised the minimum wage. But Congress has not acted," he said. "This is the right thing to do for the workers and the economy."
And on the Senate floor, Sikkema said that the increase could help the state's economy because those workers affected will spend their money directly on goods and services here.
Given the GOP's opposition to the minimum wage increase, Sikkema said it was a short caucus to discuss the issue and the caucus voted unanimously to support it.
Indeed, the action moving the bill was as carefully orchestrated as anything the Senate has done in recent years. SB 318 had already been on the calendar because of a long-standing discharge motion.
After the chamber disposed of a discharge motion on SR 71 (see related story) every Republican name went up on the speaker's board, beginning with Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt), who moved to discharge the bill.
Then followed, with not quite the precision of the June Taylor dancers but some impressive legislative choreography nonetheless, a rapid fire series of motions to advance the bill, consider it read, adopt Sikkema's substitute, close debate, pass the bill, reconsider the bill and then defeat the reconsideration.
Unclear of what was happening, Democrats tried to object at various points, worried that a procedural trick was in play. But even they were delighted with the results in the end.
"I always knew the former aide to Sen. John Otterbacher would come to his senses," joked Senate Minority Leader Bob Emerson (D-Flint). Otterbacher was a very liberal Democrat from Grand Rapids in the 1970s and one of his aides was Sikkema.
House Speaker Craig DeRoche (R-Novi) said the Senate's movement on minimum wage was a "responsible approach" to a poor ballot proposal that would, if passed, provide a lower minimum wage than what is proposed in the legislation.
The House could take up action on the bill as early as Tuesday, with the lower chamber setting it up for final reading Thursday by advancing the bill to final passage without having it go before a committee.
DeRoche, who had said a few months ago that the minimum wage debate should occur when the economy is booming, as it was the last time the wage was raised by the Legislature, said the ballot proposal was pushing for lawmakers to hold that debate now.
The ballot initiative would have a negative effect on the training of younger workers and the service industry that relies on tip credit, he said.
Ideally, he added, the Legislature would fix the tax code before it told businesses what to pay their workers, but DeRoche said lawmakers can multi-task.
House Minority Leader Dianne Byrum (D-Onondaga) said it was at the Democrats' urging that the Senate passed the increase and that members were celebrating that victory Thursday.
In terms of what happens with the ballot proposal now, Byrum said that once the legislation is signed by the governor, Democrats will have to reevaluate the ballot initiative. She did not say what that would entail or if she would be dropping support for the initiative. Of the negative effects of the ballot proposal, Byrum only commented that the ballot proposal had "other elements" in it than the legislation.
Business groups clearly were not happy. Rob Fowler of the Small Business Association of Michigan said his organization remained "unalterably opposed to a mandated minimum wage increase."
And while officials of the Michigan Restaurant Association said it was better for a wage hike to be enacted legislatively than in the constitution, the proposal was still a "jobs killer."
Richard Studley of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce said the bill was a surprise. "This wasn't our idea, and yes" the chamber is opposed to it, Mr. Studley said. If the minimum wage was to be raised it should be done through federal action, he said.
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