LITTLE ROCK — Unable to garner support from the Legislature this year, proponents of increasing the state minimum wage are hoping for a better response from the voting public in 2014.
A group called Give Arkansas a Raise Now submitted a ballot proposal to state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel this month that would raise the state’s minimum wage from $6.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour over a three-year-period.
If the attorney general certifies the proposed initiated act’s name and title — a decision is expected this week — the proposal would join five others that have already been cleared by McDaniel’s office for supporters to begin gathering enough signatures of registered voters to qualify the measures for the November general election ballot.
Two of the other proposals would legalize marijuana for medical use, two would allow same-sex marriage in the state and one would extend from two to four years the terms of county elected officials.
"We feel like it’s time for (the minimum wage) increase so folks who are working hard, playing by the rules, can actually make their ends meet," said Stephen Copley, chairman of Give Arkansas a Raise Now, which includes Arkansas AFL-CIO President Alan Hughes and Dale Charles, president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP.
Under the proposal, the state minimum wage would rise to $7.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2015, to $8 an hour on Jan. 1, 2016, and to $8.50 on Jan. 1, 2017.
Arkansas is one of four states with a minimum wage below the federal minimum of $7.25. The federal wage has to be paid except when the employing business makes less than $500,000 annually, according to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Waiters or others working in a profession where tips are common would still have to make a minimum of $3.62 an hour.
The current $6.25 an hour state rate equals $13,000 a year. Copley said bringing the state minimum wage in line with the federal minimum wage is still "not enough for people to live on," noting at $7.25 an hour equals just under $15,100 a year.
"With $100 a week for groceries — that’s probably low — that’s $5,200 a year, plus $300 a month for rent, that’s $3,600 and that put you at $8,800, which is half-way through your salary and you just have bought food and paid rent," he said.
"We think if it is on the ballot it will pass, and we think we can get it on the ballot," he said.
Arkansas last raised its minimum wage in 2006, from $5.15 to $6.25 an hour. That measure passed the Legislature with bipartisan support. The state’s minimum wage, however, is below the federal minimum wage. Nineteen states have a minimum wage above the federal minimum wage.
In March, a House bill that would have raised the state’s minimum wage to $8.25 an hour never made it to the House floor for a vote. It failed in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. It needed 11 votes and received six "yes" votes and 10 "no" votes in the 20-member committee.
The Arkansas Hospitality Association and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce-Associated Industries of Arkansas opposed the higher minimum wage proposal, arguing it would harm small businesses.
Randy Zook, executive director and CEO of the state chamber, said last week he couldn’t say if the chamber would oppose a proposed initiated act to raise the minimum wage because President Obama and congressional Democrats are pushing a raise in the federal minimum wage that could be considered before next November that would be higher than the one being proposed in Arkansas.
"The state minimum wage only applies to a very, very small segment of the employee base," he said. "The federal wage applies to almost all businesses, so we may or may not. I don’t know if we’ll take a position at all because the federal minimum wage is likely to be changed before that proposal gets voted on."
Zook said he has heard that the proposed new minimum wage would be anywhere from $9 an hour to $10 an hour.
"My guess it will end up somewhere close to $9," he said.
Ballot names and titles to three proposed initiated acts and two proposed constitutional amendments have already been certified by the attorney general. Supporters of the three initiated acts and one of the proposed constitutional amendments hope to get enough signatures by the July 7 deadline to qualify them for the Nov. 4 general election.
Proposed constitutional amendments need signatures of 78,133 registered voters to qualify while initiated acts need 62,506 signatures of registered Arkansas voters to qualify.
The Arkansas Initiative for Marriage Equality, which is sponsoring the Arkansas Marriage Amendment, intends for that measure to be considered by voters in 2016. The exact number of signatures required will not be known until after the 2014 general election since the threshold is 10 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the most recent gubernatorial race.
The Arkansas Marriage Amendment would "recognize that a marriage is legally recognized as a union of two people regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are the same sex or different sex." Members of the clergy and religious organizations would be allowed to refuse to perform ceremonies or provide facilities under the proposed amendment.
The attorney general has also certified a companion proposed constitutional amendment which would repeal Amendment 83, which defines marriage as only between one man and one woman, banning gay marriage and civil unions in Arkansas. Supporters are currently gathering signatures to get that measure on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.
Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, the organization that led the fight for Amendment 83 in 2004, has said his group intends to campaign against any effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Arkansas.
The Family Council also plans to opposes both proposals that would legalize marijuana for medical use, Cox said.
Both proposed initiated acts, which have already certified by the attorney general, would legalize marijuana for medical use.
One, sponsored by Arkansans for Responsible Marijuana, would prohibit people from growing their own marijuana and require it to be purchased from a regulated dispensary. The other, sponsored by Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, would allow caregivers for those people who live more than five miles from a dispensary to grow marijuana for up to five people, but under limited conditions and state regulations and licensing.
Arkansas voters in 2012 narrowly rejected a medical marijuana proposal.