Saturday, February 17, 2018
Politics

Romano: Use that 5-cent raise to send a letter to Tallahassee about the minimum wage

Live it up, Florida. Fortune's on the way.

Yes, the state's minimum wage got a bump this week. There will be no more scrapping by for a measly $8.05 an hour. As of this moment, folks can count on $8.10 an hour.

Let the spending begin!

Hard as it is to believe, the Consumer Price Index used to calculate the state's minimum wage has barely budged in two years. If nothing else, the soaring cost of apartments and houses in Florida seems as if it should have given the minimum wage a significant goose.

Instead, the state's current wage buys you about 10 percent less than 1980's minimum wage. And more than 30 percent less than the minimum wage in 1968.

And yet opponents of raising the wage still insist that any increases would cause an economic meltdown.

"Those who are philosophically opposed will always find reasons to argue against it,'' said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. "Even if their reasons are not fact-based.''

Kriseman raised the minimum wage to $12.50 for city employees in 2014, and says they're on track for a $15 rate by 2020. In Miami Beach, an ordinance passed last year will raise the minimum wage for everyone in the city to $10.31 in 2018, although the state has challenged the validity of the law.

There was a time when Florida was ahead of the curve on this. Back in 2004, when most of the nation was still clinging to the federal minimum wage, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that increased the state's minimum wage by $1 and tied future raises to the CPI.

As recently as New Year's Day in 2015, Florida's minimum wage was the 16th highest in the nation. Over the past two years, it has dropped to 27th.

And, no, I'm not suggesting Florida needs to get in a bidding war with New York or Massachusetts or California, where the cost of living is higher and the minimum wage reflects that.

But we've got a serious poverty problem in Florida. Percentage-wise, Florida is near the top 10 in the nation in poverty-level residents. In sheer numbers, Florida is one of the very worst.

That means taxpayers are helping to foot the bill for a lot of subsidized housing. And a lot of medical care. And a lot of food assistance accounts.

Logic says the more people we move out of poverty means the less burden our government will bear. And raising the minimum wage is one of the first steps we can take.

That doesn't mean Florida needs a $15 minimum wage next year, or even in the next few years, but the state needs more than what the cost of living index is providing.

"To me, it's about the larger picture of dignity for working people and their families,'' said St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, who spearheaded a wage theft ordinance in 2015. "The 'Fight for 15' is about pushing the conversation forward and moving the needle with incremental policies.''

Would a higher minimum wage lead to an increase in unemployment? A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office says it would.

Yet if you look at states that use the lowest minimum wage possible — the federal standard of $7.25 — several of them have the highest unemployment rates in the nation. And a half-dozen states with a minimum wage at $9 or higher have some of the lowest unemployment rates in America.

That suggests one concept isn't necessarily tied to the other.

Yes, an immediate jump to $15 an hour would likely lead to job losses and other ramifications. But there's a lot of negotiating space between $8.10 and $15.

Nevada has one minimum wage for employers who don't offer health insurance, and a lower wage for those who do. Minnesota has one minimum wage for large employers, and a lower wage for mom-and-pop type businesses. The point is there is room for creativity to match a state's particular needs.

The last minimum wage plan in Florida was created at the grass roots level by voters a dozen years ago. It's long past the time for our leaders in Tallahassee to start looking at other unique solutions in Florida.

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