Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Business

Democrats call attention to raising Florida's minimum wage, but it's a losing battle

TALLAHASSEE

They held protests and press conferences. Several even spent the week living on $7.93 an hour. But try as they might, Democratic lawmakers could not spark a discussion about increasing the state minimum wage. "It's a debate that's being had everywhere but Florida," said Sen. Dwight Bullard, the Miami-Dade Democrat leading the charge. "Republicans are blocking it." The GOP had its reasons for not engaging on the issue, some members said, including a belief that increasing the minimum wage would slow job growth.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he was not surprised to see Democrats turn to the media.

"This is the magical time in session when people who cannot pass their bills resort to political stunts," Weatherford said. "It's a sad but unfortunately predictable pastime for the last three weeks of session."

The actions taken in Florida last week were part of a broader campaign by Democrats nationwide.

President Barack Obama is pushing to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour and promoting laws that address the income disparity between men and women.

Some statehouses are following his lead. Recently, lawmakers in Connecticut and Maryland decided to gradually increase their minimum wage to $10.10.

In Florida, Bullard and Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, have filed bills (SB 456/HB 385) that would hike the state minimum wage from $7.93 to $10.10 an hour.

Separately, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, are proposing a measure (SB 206/HB 163) that would help end the pay disparity between men and women.

Neither has gotten any traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Sen. Nancy Detert, the Venice Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, said she had not scheduled the minimum wage bill for a hearing because "the Senate only hears bills that are moving in the House."

"Why don't you go down to the House and ask why it isn't moving there?" she told a reporter last week.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, who chairs the House Economic Development and Tourism Subcommittee, said he decided not to hear the bill because he does not agree with the policy.

"The premise that raising the minimum wage raises the quality of life is flawed," said Trujillo, R-Miami, noting that increasing wages would drive up prices. "What we have to focus on is ending generational poverty."

In Florida, earning the minimum wage means earning about $16,000 a year.

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 73 percent of Florida voters support increasing the minimum wage. Advocates like the National Employment Law Project say the move would offer much-needed support to working families and spur economic growth. But business groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce aren't sold.

"Mandating hiring wages is bad economic policy that can lead to fewer jobs for entry-level workers looking to gain job skills," said Edie Ousley, vice president of Public Affairs.

Robert F. Sanchez of the James Madison Institute said the move could ultimately lead to wage inflation.

"There are a lot of employees who are already making $10 an hour," Sanchez said. "When you bump up the minimum wage, you have to bump up their wages, too."

The Democrats have too few members to force legislation in Florida. So last week, they set their sights on the next best thing: media attention.

On Tuesday, the Miami-Dade Democratic Party protested outside of Trujillo's district office.

"The Republican lawmakers who refuse to take action on the bill need to see the real consequences of their failure to lead — Floridians who work full time, year-round and yet still live in poverty on a minimum wage salary," said Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chair Annette Taddeo-Goldstein.

Joyner and Cruz held a press conference on their equal-pay bill later in the day.

"By refusing to act, Republicans are telling their daughters that no matter how much they work, they are not worth as much as their brothers," Cruz said.

Bullard took a different approach to promoting his minimum wage bill: He challenged his fellow lawmakers to spend a week living on minimum wage.

Nine Democrats accepted: Stafford and Reps. Karen Castor Dentel, Shevrin Jones, Kionne McGhee, Bobby Powell, Ricardo Rangel, José Javier Rodríguez, Victor Torres Jr. and Clovis Watson.

A group of those lawmakers went grocery shopping together Wednesday at a Tallahassee Publix. The point of the trip: to see how much nourishing food they could buy for $25.

With TV cameras in tow, McGhee bought milk, orange juice, eggs, chicken, bananas and a box of Pop-Tarts.

"Without milk, you're not going to have strong bones," McGhee said, surveying the mostly nourishing items in his basket. "You need milk."

The lawmakers were joined by 23-year-old Oscar Rivera, a Miami Dade College student and part-time fast-food restaurant cook who traveled to Tallahassee with the health workers' union. Rivera, who earns the minimum wage, urged Democrats to keep up the fight.

"We need an increase in our salary," he said. "We need a change. We need a little bit more to buy food and pay bills."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at [email protected]

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