LITTLE ROCK — When Arkansas last raised the state’s minimum wage, it was pitched to lawmakers as an alternative to a wage hike that supporters had hoped to put on the ballot. Eight years later, a new proposal is being touted as an alternative to the increase being weighed in Washington.
With three months to go before they need to turn in signatures in a bid to qualify for the November ballot, supporters of a minimum wage increase in Arkansas say they’re hoping to win support from politicians on both sides of the aisle. But with two of their top candidates supporting the proposal, Democrats clearly hope the issue has coattails.
The proposal from Give Arkansas a Raise Now comes as efforts to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 remain uncertain. The Senate could vote as early as this week on that proposal.
The Arkansas proposal would raise the state’s current $6.25 per hour minimum wage to $7.50 per hour on Jan. 1, 2015; to $8 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016, and to $8.50 per hour on Jan. 1, 2017. Arkansas is one of four states where the minimum wage is lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Steve Copley, the head of the Give Arkansas a Raise Now campaign, said his group has already gathered between 20,000 and 25,000 signatures in an effort to put the measure on the November ballot. The group needs to submit at least 62,507 signatures from registered voters by July 7 to qualify.
"Folks just know people who are trying to work on minimum wage, they’re working hard and they just can’t make ends meet," Copley said. "They get that it’s the right thing to do."
A similar ballot campaign headed by Copley in 2006 for a proposed constitutional amendment that would have raised the state’s minimum wage prompted the Legislature during a special session that year to back increasing the wage by law. Legislators then said that approach was preferable to the proposed ballot measure, which also would have included a required annual inflationary adjustment in the wage.
This time around, the wage increase proposed in Arkansas could be preferable to candidates who don’t want to embrace the larger hike being weighed by the Senate. Facing a tough re-election challenge, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor has endorsed the Arkansas proposal and been one of its most vocal supporters.
"We have a lot of hardworking folks here in Arkansas making minimum-wage, and it’s time these families got a raise," Pryor said earlier this year in announcing his backing for the proposal.
It remains to be seen how much of a fight Copley’s group will face in pushing for its wage increase. Randy Zook, head of the state Chamber of Commerce, says his group is more focused now on opposing the federal wage increase and hasn’t weighed in on the state proposal.
The proposal could help Democrats turn out their voters as they try to rebound from Republican gains over the past two months.
Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, who is challenging Pryor, also opposes the federal minimum wage increase proposal and says it a rare issue where the rivals agree. But he’s stopped short of backing the Arkansas proposal.
"Tom believes this issue is best left to the states and it’s a good idea to let Arkansas voters decide the matter," Cotton spokesman David Ray said in an email. "Tom will carefully study this proposal with an open mind and an eye toward making the best policy for Arkansas’s working families."
The proposal could also factor into the governor’s race. Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross said last week he supports the proposal.
"Working Arkansans deserve a living wage to provide for their families, which is why I support the ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage in a gradual, fair and responsible way," Ross said in a statement provided by his campaign.
His chief Republican rival, Asa Hutchinson, said in a statement he would prefer to see a minimum wage increase addressed by the Legislature rather than a ballot measure.
"I support increasing the minimum wage. However, I prefer that this issue be considered by the General Assembly rather than by ballot initiative," Hutchinson said in a statement.
The state Republican Party hasn’t taken a position on the proposal, but state Democratic Party Chairman Vince Insalaco said his party is supporting the ballot measure and he hoped to see other Democrats back the idea.
"We are very strongly in favor of this ballot measure and we will do everything we can to support this initiative," Insalaco said. "Whether or not it turns out the Democrats is not the point."