Wednesday, May 22, 2024

LaRose: Republicans’ callous indifference on minimum wage could cost all state lawmakers

by BIZ Magazine

There’s a good argument to be made for giving Louisiana lawmakers a pay raise, starting with the fact members of the state legislature last received one in 1980. You wouldn’t have to try too hard to convince me that being a legislator is a full-time job, given the near 24-7 accessibility to constituents via smartphones and email.

As the proposal from Rep. Joe Marino, I-Gretna, stands now, lawmakers would see an increase from $16,800 annually, not counting their per diem pay, to 75% of the median household income in Louisiana. Currently, that would make legislative pay around $40,000 a year.  

But whatever goodwill lawmakers amassed to approve a pay hike for themselves in a committee meeting Tuesday evaporated the next day when their colleagues snubbed a proposal to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage from the federal basement of $7.25 an hour to $14 by 2028. In doing so, Republicans on the House Committee of Labor and Industrial Relations applied economic theory so brain-twisting that it likely caused economist John Maynard Keynes to turn cartwheels in his grave.

Committee member Rep. Larry Frieman, R-Abita Springs, said his daughter moved to take a better paying job in Mississippi, where the minimum wage is also $7.25. It’s the same rate in Texas, which Frieman noted “has a better atmosphere in Louisiana” in regards to greater economic opportunity.

If we’re understanding Frieman correctly, Texas and Mississippi can offer better paying jobs because their businesses aren’t forced to meet a minimum wage in excess of $7.25. He and like-minded market economy enthusiasts feel it’s best that competition drive compensation.

That might be fine if the philosophy applied solely to entry-level positions. But as proponents of the minimum wage increase Rep. Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria, proposed noted, far too many employers are content to keep wages of veteran workers low.

That’s not competition; it’s greed, plain and simple. 

Even more baffling in the labor committee was the logic of Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Schriever, who agreed that $7.25 is not a livable wage. Still, she maintained the free market should determine wages. 

“I don’t see that a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage solves those problems, especially not solving it as the free market can,” Amedee said.

Darryl Hurst, a councilman in East Baton Rouge Parish, who testified in support of Larvadain’s bill, argued the increase is about lifting communities out of poverty.  

“How can you sit on a labor committee and publicly say that ‘I agree that nobody should make $7.25’ but not pass a law that prevents it?” Hurst asked, addressing Amedee directly. “It’s like somebody who says, ‘I disagree with slavery, but I don’t think it’s up to me to tell somebody how they should run their plantation.’”

If not for the strain COVID-19 put on the labor pool over the past three years, many of the businesses that raised their pay to attract workers probably would not have increased their compensation. It took a pandemic for some employers to realize you should pay people a living wage if you were asking them to risk their well-being — and it’s probably a good idea to maintain their living wage once the risk subsides.

A minimum wage increase isn’t about making someone content to stay too long at a job meant for people just entering the workforce. Actually, it correlates directly to why their families languish in hardship. 

Of the 20 states that had failed to raise the minimum wage above the federal $7.25 an hour standard as of late 2022, 16 had more than 12% of their children living in poverty, according to a States Newsroom analysis of wage and poverty data. Louisiana – at 26.3% – had the second highest child poverty rate behind Mississippi.

I probably didn’t pay enough attention in the lone economics course I took in college. What I do remember is being confused that economic liberalism is a tenet of the politically conservative. 

Maybe that’s why GOP lawmakers struggle with what to do about the minimum wage. You’d hate to think it’s heartless indifference toward people we rely on to care for, clean up and feed us.

Greg LaRose is editor of the Louisiana Illuminator and has covered news in Louisiana for 30-plus years.

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