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  1. Opinion

Will Florida raise minimum wage to $15 amid pandemic? | Column

The economy and electoral dynamics make for an interesting calculus, writes a USF professor.

With an economy already ravaged by the coronavirus outbreak, Floridians will face a number of increasingly consequential choices this November. Not the least of these will be deciding the fate of Amendment 2, a proposal to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026. Recent survey data suggest that the success or failure of Amendment 2 will depend in large part on voter turnout in November’s presidential election, but the coronavirus may end up further complicating this decision for many voters.

On paper, supporters of Amendment 2 have reason for optimism: ballot initiatives aimed at raising the minimum wage are typically effective, often succeeding where legislative efforts fail. In the past decade alone, eleven states have opted to raise their minimum wage via ballot initiatives, and no statewide minimum wage referendum has failed since 1996.

But Amendment 2 is unique in a number of ways, including the fact that Florida law requires a 60% majority to approve constitutional amendments. Additionally, no other major “battleground state” has attempted to increase the minimum wage during a presidential election year.

USF professor Stephen Neely [ File photo ]

Arizonans did vote to raise their state’s minimum wage in 2016 alongside a narrow victory by Donald Trump. However, that initiative passed with less than a 60% majority.

In 2018, ballot initiatives were easily passed in two traditionally “red states” (Arkansas and Missouri), but despite breaking the 60% threshold in both cases, these came in a midterm election year and were underpinned by a strong Democratic advantage in voter turnout and intensity.

Recent analysis conducted as part of the Sunshine State Survey – a collaboration between the University of South Florida and Nielsen – suggests that the fate of Amendment 2 may depend largely on voter turnout for November’s Presidential election.

The survey of 1,200 Floridians revealed sharp partisan divisions on the issue, as well as significant differences of opinion across age groups and racial/ethnic categories. For example, using a “feeling thermometer,” Democratic respondents gave the proposal a high average score of 76.8, compared to an average of only 46.8 among Republicans.

Younger Floridians were also notably more supportive of the measure, with 18-29-year-olds rating it 13 points higher than those over the age of 50. The highest score among any subgroup belonged to African Americans, who gave the proposal an average rating of 79.5, a full twenty-points higher than the average score for whites.

All of this suggests that the turnout dynamics of November’s presidential election will be critical in determining the fate of Amendment 2. A contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden could potentially attenuate turnout among younger voters, which would be unwelcome news to supporters of the amendment. Lower than expected turnout among African Americans and Hispanics would be even more devastating.

However, if Biden is able to re-energize the “Obama Coalition” that carried him to the vice presidency in 2008 and 2012, then robust youth and African American turnout could mean the difference in Amendment 2 clearing Florida’s 60% threshold.

Adding to this uncertainty is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has already exposed the profound vulnerability of Florida’s low-wage workers, but at the same time may leave employers ill-equipped to sustain significant wage increases over the short to medium term.

If hard-hit businesses are unable to maintain their current workforces at a higher minimum wage, then Amendment 2 might force voters into an impossible choice, one in which increased wage security for some workers could mean prolonged unemployment for others.

It’s too early to tell what model of voter turnout will prevail in November, much less how our ongoing public health crisis will shape the economic and political landscapes going forward, but it’s already clear that the coronavirus is raising the economic stakes for Floridians in more ways than one.

Stephen Neely is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida, School of Public Affairs. Email him at srneely@usf.edu.

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