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Passing the Buck in Helena Edition

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Listen to all the rhetoric about Montana’s wages being the lowest in the nation and you’d think someone might actually do something about it. Now, for the first time since the feds raised the minimum hourly wage to $5.15 in 1997, state lawmakers are poised to do just that—move base wages up.

Business lobbyists, accustomed to having their way when the Republicans ran the Legislature, were scowling this week when the Democrat-controlled Senate voted yea to Sen. Dan Harrington’s bill to raise the minimum to $6.25 an hour. The Butte Democrat’s proposal would put Montana among 13 other states with minimum wages above the federal level. SB 78 now goes to the evenly divided House, where its fate is uncertain.

Harrington’s bill got some unwanted sweetening when Sen. Vicki Cocchiarella, D-Missoula, sprang a floor amendment providing a partial exemption for minimum wage workers who receive tips. The so-called “wage-tip credit,” long fought by unions, is part of an 11th-hour deal cooked up by the Montana Restaurant Association, representing owners, and the AFL-CIO. Its main function is to appease House Republicans, well-known for their distaste of mandating fair pay for honest work.

During debate, opponents predictably predicted economic carnage if the minimum wage is increased. Lost jobs, reduced hours and businesses closing their doors are all on the horizon, they contend. Underpaid workers should instead quit whining, get more training and climb the economic ladder the way the market intended.

Full-time workers at $5.15 an hour grossing $10,712 a year make infinitely more sense, according to this line of thinking, even if they must use tax-funded social services programs for their food, their rent and their health care. Harrington says about 30,000 Montana workers are now paid $6.15 an hour or less. And many of them are working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

One Republican lawmaker, Sen. Jerry O’Neil of Columbia Falls, even argued that minimum wage laws are racist. He predicts jobless rates on the state’s Indian reservations, already astronomical, will increase if SB 78 is approved. O’Neil also has requested a draft bill that would exempt disabled workers from the state’s wage-and-hour laws, a move he says would help create more jobs.

Behind the scenes, few SB 78 backers think the proposed $1.10-an-hour increase is enough, and several other bills to raise the base rate even higher are waiting in the wings. A proposal by Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, would create a ballot initiative asking the state’s voters whether the hourly minimum should be raised to $7.75.

Linda Gryczan of the Montana Women’s Lobby says even that would do little to counter the bottom line: The average American CEO makes $5,300 an hour—more than 1,000 times the current minimum wage.

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