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Romano: A minimum wage increase didn't destroy Florida. Now it's time to do more

Published Jan. 5, 2016

Unlike the previous four New Year's celebrations, the minimum wage in Florida did not go up when a new calendar was introduced last week.

This was probably good news to some (a lot of business owners) and devastating to others (a lot of poor schleps). As for everyone else, it should be instructive.

Here's what I mean:

Eleven years ago, Florida voters took it upon themselves to change the state Constitution with an amendment that immediately raised the minimum wage and also added a cost-of-living mechanism that could increase the rate annually when appropriate.

I may be slightly off on the official title of that ballot measure, but I believe it was called The End of the World as We Know It amendment.

No joke, there were people in 2004 who made it sound as if Florida would implode under the weight of an extra dollar's pay.

The governor's spokesman said it would cost jobs. The head of the state's restaurant association said it would "devastate" the industry. A lobbyist suggested the rate index would cause the minimum wage to rise to $10 an hour by 2010.

And in a particularly restrained assessment, a Chamber of Commerce executive predicted Florida would have "one of the highest payroll costs in America" in 2015.

None of this came to pass, of course.

Instead of costing jobs, the unemployment rate went down noticeably in the first year of the new minimum wage. The cost-of-living increases have worked out to an average of 2.8 percent (or 17 cents) a year, keeping the 2016 wage of $8.05 wage well short of the hysterical $10 prediction for 2010.

As for the astronomical payroll fears, Florida's median wage was the third lowest in the nation, according to a study by Governing magazine in 2014.

All of which brings us back home to the instructive part.

The minimum wage is once again a hot topic in Florida and elsewhere. On Jan. 1, the minimum wage went up in 14 other states, as well as in numerous cities. And two Florida lawmakers have introduced legislation that would increase the state's rate to $15 an hour.

The difference is, unlike in 2004, we have recent history as a guide.

And what it tells us is that measured and reasonable increases in the minimum wage can benefit our most struggling citizens without being a drag on the economy.

Having said that, a $15 minimum wage is neither measured nor reasonable. While places such as Seattle or San Francisco might rationally consider a $15 floor because of the high cost of living, it's too much and too soon for Florida.

It's also dangerous because it allows lawmakers to reject any minimum wage discussion because the $15 argument is such a nonstarter.

What legislators should be arguing for is another $1- or $2-an-hour bump, while keeping the cost-of-living escalator in place. That would put Florida near the top 10 states in the nation for minimum wage, and it would increase the pressure on lawmakers to act because it's a step that a lot of voters would potentially support.

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After all, this is a state with a higher poverty level than the national average, and with a huge budget allocation for medical needs for low-income families.

There is an argument to be made that increasing the minimum wage can help remove service industry employees, retail workers, even bank tellers from food assistance and other government-aid programs, which helps the middle class, as well.

Will it potentially cut into the profits of some small or struggling businesses?

Without a doubt.

But considering this state has one of the largest income gaps in the nation, there is a greater chance that paying reasonable wages will cut into CEO yacht funds.

It doesn't have to be a huge increase. It doesn't have to mirror other communities with different needs.

But a higher minimum wage does deserve the attention of the Florida Legislature.