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Democrats see minimum wage increase as winning issue

After recent election cycles that saw Arkansas grow increasingly red, the state Democratic Party thinks it has found a winning issue in a proposal to raise the state minimum wage.

If it gets on the November ballot, Arkansans will decide on a proposed initiated act that would raise the state minimum wage gradually from $6.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour by 2017. The group sponsoring the measure is not affiliated with the state Democratic Party, but a number of Democratic candidates have endorsed the proposal.

A Talk Business-Hendrix College poll conducted in April found that 79 percent of likely voters in the state support the proposal. The poll of 1,068 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

Arkansas is one of four states — along with Georgia, Minnesota and Wyoming — that have a minimum wage lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Businesses in those states with annual revenue of less than $500,000 are allowed to pay workers less than the federal minimum wage, with some exceptions.

“Arkansans are overwhelmingly in support of raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour,” said state Democratic Party spokesman Patrick Burgwinkle. “I think that Arkansans will support the initiative and will appreciate and support candidates who also have shown that they support raising the minimum wage.”

State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said the GOP supports raising Arkansas’ minimum wage at least to the level of the federal minimum wage.

“We believe that the Legislature should consider it at its first opportunity,” he said. “We would not want to raise the minimum wage to the level that it would jeopardize jobs or raise unemployment in Arkansas.”

As for the poll showing strong support for raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, Webb said, “I think when the people know all the issues, or all the factors that contribute to this issue, they might come to a different conclusion.”

The proposed initiated act is sponsored by the group Give Arkansas a Raise Now, whose chairman, Steve Copley, says he does not consider it a partisan issue.

“From the very beginning we have issued the invitation that we would love to have anybody endorse it, whether they’re Democrat, Republican or whatever party they’re affiliated with,” Copley said.

The group is sending a questionnaire to political candidates on the issue and hopes that some Republicans will indicate support, he said.

Copley said raising the minimum wage has been shown to improve productivity because workers are under less stress at home. He noted that Arkansas has not increased its minimum wage since 2006 — although the cost of living has continued to climb — and that legislative attempts to increase it failed in the 2009, 2011 and 2013 sessions.

“After that many attempts, it’s time to bring it to the people of Arkansas and let them decide,” he said.

The proposal has become a key issue in the governor’s race, with Democrat Mike Ross supporting it and Republican Asa Hutchinson saying he would prefer that the Legislature raise the minimum wage.

Ross, a former congressman, said Friday in an email that Hutchinson, also a former congressman, is “not being honest.” Ross said Hutchinson voted multiple times in Congress against raising the federal minimum wage, and he pointed to the repeated failed attempts in the Legislature to raise the state minimum wage.

“This is not about politics,” Ross said. “I’m supporting the ballot initiative because it gives every Arkansan the opportunity to vote on whether or not we should raise the state’s minimum wage from its current $6.25 per hour, which is $13,000 a year for a person working 40 hours a week. Congressman Hutchinson’s opposition to letting the voters decide this issue is just more proof that he’s become out of touch with working families in Arkansas.”

Hutchinson spokesman Christian Olson said Friday, “Asa’s position on the minimum wage has been clear that he supports raising the state minimum wage to at least $7.25 per hour to match the federal as an initial starting point.”

“Asa prefers the Legislature to act on this increase at the earliest opportunity. The Legislature should raise the minimum wage so that a simple majority in the Legislature can address any additional increases, whereas if the minimum wage is increased by an initiated act, any additional increases would require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature,” Olson said.

Before anyone can vote on the issue, it has to be certified for the ballot. Secretary of State Mark Martin’s office said Wednesday that Give Arkansas a Raise Now was 15,107 short of the 62,507 signatures of registered Arkansas voters needed to place a proposed initiated act on the ballot, but the group qualified for a 30-day period to collect more signatures.

A group that opposes a separate proposal to allow statewide alcohol sales has argued that the alcohol measure should be disqualified because signatures in support of it were submitted to Martin’s office on July 7. The state constitution requires that signatures in support of statewide ballot initiatives be submitted at least four months before the election, which this year falls on Nov. 4.

Martin’s office has said it properly set July 7 as the initial deadline for signatures because it was the first business day after July 4, which was a holiday. If the office certifies the alcohol measure, opponents have said they will file a lawsuit — which also could affect the proposal on the minimum wage because Give Arkansas a Raise Now also submitted signatures on July 7.

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