How the Minimum Wage May Pay Off for Dems

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How's this for a November surprise? On Election Day, the millions of dollars poured into campaigns in states such as Ohio and Missouri may pale in value compared to the power of a simple buck. That's about the amount by which the minimum wage would increase under ballot initiatives in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio. And as support for the initiatives hovers at around 70%, according to polls in those states, analysts expect widespread backing for the measures to help drive voter turnout on behalf of progressive candidates.

Proponents of the six initiatives want their states to join the 22 others that have already raised state minimum wage levels above the federal figure, which has been stuck at $5.15 for nearly a decade. With the value of the federal minimum wage now at its lowest inflation-adjusted total in 50 years, proponents of the initiatives argue that states have to step in on behalf of the poorest of workers. Opponents say mandated wage hikes would hurt business owners and cost jobs.

Although wage initiatives crop up periodically, this year the stagnation of the federal minimum wage inspired initiative proponents to add a powerful element to each of their proposals: indexing the wage floor to inflation. The idea is to ensure that low-wage workers don't see their purchasing power decline every year as costs rise and their wages remain static. Washington, Oregon, Florida and Vermont have already enacted such indexes. Opponents argue that indexing could lead to spiraling labor costs, but a recent analysis by Michael Ettlinger of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a progressive research institute, suggests that there is minimal risk of the so-called "runaway wage" effect.

Given the popularity of the minimum wage proposals, opponents have been trying out novel strategies. In Ohio the latest tack has been to argue that the the fine print in the state's ballot initiative represents a threat to employer and employee privacy. A group called Ohioans to Protect Personal Privacy (OTPPP) has placed ads to that effect, urging voters to reject the initiative because they claim it would enable nearly anyone to access employees' job records without their permission. But Peter P. Swire, a law professor at the Ohio State University and former Chief Counselor for Privacy in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, rejects that rationale. He wrote a paper arguing that OTPPP's claim "is clearly wrong, contrary to law, and shows an ignorance of actual privacy law." The threats to privacy of Ohio's initiative, he says, are illusory.

In Montana, where a Mason-Dixon poll shows 71% support for a $1 minimum wage hike, an opposition group recently tried to challenge the signatures gathered by the initiative supporters. But last week a judge ruled that the challenge had been filed too late. In Colorado, opponents of the wage initiative, dubbed Amendment 42, say that raising entry-level pay in the state to $6.85 would hinder job growth. They ran a TV ad showing Moses pleading with God for divine intervention to stop the wage initiative. "We can't let the people make this mistake," God responds. "Go. Spread the word. Vote no on 42!" Voters don't seem to be heeding that call, though. In a Rocky Mountain News/CBS poll, 74% said they would definitely or probably support the wage boost, with just 20% saying they wouldn't.

Opponents of minimum wage hikes in all six states have consistently argued that raising minimum wages burdens employers with higher labor costs, leading to job cuts. A September paper by David Macpherson of Florida State University advanced that claim, arguing that a wage hike in Arizona could cause 4,627 workers to lose their jobs. But the paper relies on assumptions that many economists consider outdated and inaccurate. Recent studies have shown little evidence of such job losses in states that have raised their minimum wage in recent years. A letter signed by 650 U.S. economists, including five past presidents of the American Economics Association and six Nobel laureates, argued that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no effect on employment, and that boosting the minimum wage would actually have a positive effect not just on workers and the labor market but on the overall economy.

If the initiatives all pass, more than 1.5 million workers will get a raise, according to an EPI estimate, including many families living below the poverty line. For those scrambling to defeat the popular state measures, though, the fight carries on. Regardless of how the measures fare on Tuesday, a battle over the national minimum wage may soon follow in Congress.