Congressman wants 55 percent increase in minimum wage

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings wants a referendum on the ballot next year to increase Florida’s minimum wage to $12.50 an hour.

Hastings, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, said the 55 percent increase from the current $8.05 an hour, is a “starting point.” He said he’d prefer $15 an hour, but wouldn’t ask for that much because opponents would “go bonkers.”

The congressman said in a telephone interview he would formally launch the effort “no later” than April to allow sufficient time to raise the money required to gather the 683,149 signatures needed to get the measure on the November 2016 ballot.

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Money is the biggest obstacle. He’d need more than 1 million signed petitions to ensure enough valid signatures, and it could cost $2 million, said Daniel Smith, University of Florida political science professor who’s done extensive research on ballot initiatives. “Absolutely, it’s doable,” Smith said.

Hastings has already started testing the waters, outlining his plan earlier this month at a Democratic gathering in Coral Springs and referencing “my work to raise the minimum wage” in a fundraising email last weekend. He said he’s spoken to several supportive state legislators and has started considering possible website names.

“I believe if you can get momentum going, it will take on a life of its own,” Hastings said.

That’s precisely what Robert Zajic fears. “If they do get it on the ballot, unfortunately there’s enough people in the state of Florida who would say ‘that’s what I want. I want to make $12 an hour,’ not understanding it would really screw up the economy,” he said.

Zajic is general manager of Inter State Security Corp, a Coral Springs company with about 100 employees that provides guards and security services to residential, commercial and industrial property in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

“Putting the minimum wage at $12 an hour is absurd,” Zajic said. “This is something I’m definitely against and I’ll work as hard as I can to stop it from happening.”

Zajic said a minimum wage increase would cause a domino effect: He’d have to raise prices, they would respond by cutting back use of his services, and he would be forced to cut hours or eliminate some jobs. Multiplied by many businesses, the economy would suffer.

Frank Ortis, a longtime organized labor leader and small business owner, said there’s no evidence for Zajic’s scenario. To the contrary, Ortis said, a minimum wage increase would help individuals and the overall economy.

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“If you give people an increase in salary, they’re going to spend it and make the economy better,” he said. Businesses would be able to adjust to what would be a “big increase,” he said. “The economy is good now, and more people are being employed. I think this is the time to do it.”

Ortis, the mayor of Pembroke Pines, is Florida president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. He also owns the Mayor’s Cafe a restaurant in Pembroke Pines, which has 15 employees and pays some servers minimum wage.

Amendments to the Florida Constitution, the only mechanism for a binding statewide referendum, face a high hurdle to passage: 60 percent of the vote. Ortis said he thinks the measure would pass if it gets on the ballot. “I think 60 percent is doable.”

A 2004 referendum increasing the Florida minimum wage passed with 71 percent of the vote. Hastings said the current $8.05 isn’t enough, and annual inflation adjustments won’t make it any better in coming years. “My goodness gracious, man, where will poor people be at that point in time?”

Hastings said his proposal would also include inflation adjustments so the purchasing power of a new, higher minimum wage wouldn’t erode over time.

Last year, voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota approved increases in their states’ minimum wages, though their new rates were much lower, ranging from $8.50 to $9.75 an hour. Last year President Barack Obama proposed raising the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour.

A January 2014 Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters found 73 percent favored raising the state’s minimum wage.

“The minimum wage is seen by many as being too low, and there’s broad support for increasing it,” said Daniel Smith, University of Florida political science professor who’s done extensive research on ballot initiatives.

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Republican candidates and business groups that are key supporters of Republicans are almost universally opposed to increasing the minimum wage. The wide support among voters for increasing the minimum wage could be politically tricky for candidates who oppose the idea. “This basically pushes Republicans to have to take a stand on an issue that clearly is going to have broad, bipartisan appeal among the electorate,” Smith said.

Last year’s Quinnipiac Poll showed support was highest among Democrats at 93 percent. A slight majority of Republicans, 53 percent to 44 percent, supported raising the minimum wage. Independents were in between, with 74 percent supporting and 22 percent opposing a higher minimum wage.

Democrats who hope a minimum wage referendum would help draw more voters to the polls next year are likely to be disappointed, Smith said. Many thought last year’s referendum to legalize medical marijuana in Florida would increase turnout. It didn’t, Smith said, and the marijuana proposal failed. In 2016, he said voters are likely to be motivated primarily by the candidates seeking the presidency.

Mike Rump, president of the Republican Business Network, one of Broward’s biggest political clubs, said an increase in the minimum wage would reduce entry-level jobs. “If they’re forced to pay somebody 12 bucks an hour, I really do think it will have a negative impact.”

Rump said he hopes enough voters outside the liberal “bubble” of South Florida would see the folly of increasing the minimum wage and prevent the measure from reaching the 60 percent required for passage.

State Rep. Gwyndolen “Gwyn” Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, one of the legislators who’s heard Hastings discuss the proposal, said $12.50 an hour seems reasonable. “It’s doable,” she said. “I’m all for it.”

Citing what she said are many instances of “people working two or three jobs just to make ends meet,” Clarke-Reed said the need to increase the minimum wage is clear. She doesn’t buy the argument from business owners and Republican political leaders that it would reduce the number of jobs.

Coral Springs Mayor Walter “Skip” Campbell, who heard Hastings’s presentation at the Democratic gathering in his city, also said the argument from Republicans and employers that increasing the minimum wage costs jobs is false.

Article source: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/fl-minimum-wage-increase-hastings-20150215-story.html?track=rss

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