Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett shown during the 2015 State of the City speech. The mayor was among Linn County’s Minimum Wage Study Group urging the state’s legislature to raise the minimum wage to avoid patchwork regulations.

 

By Dave DeWitte
dave@corridorbusiness.com

Linn County could have a decision on a study committee’s recommendation to create a new county minimum wage of $8.25 an hour before fall.

The study committee recommended the minimum wage be set $1 above the current federal and state minimum wage of $7.25 on a strong majority vote at its meeting on June 21. Linn County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ben Rogers, who also chaired the committee, said the matter of setting a schedule for public input and a decision on the recommendation will be considered at the board’s June 27 meeting. He would like to see that happen before September, so that businesses can prepare their budgets for next year accordingly.

With no change in the state minimum wage since 2008, members of the Linn County Minimum Wage Study Group want Linn County to follow Johnson County’s example by enacting a local minimum wage ordinance.

“Our group has repeatedly heard from individuals and business owners that the state should take up this issue,” Mr. Rogers said in an email explaining the vote. “Our study group agreed with that sentiment, but were unwilling to wait for the state to take action. We felt that if counties were having minimum wage discussions that could potentially create a patchwork of different rates, this would incentivize the state to take up the issue in the next several legislative session.”

Johnson County became the first in the state to adopt a local minimum wage ordinance. The ordinance took effect April 30, 2015, raising the minimum wage to $8.20 on Nov. 1, 2015, $9.15 on May 1, 2016, and $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2017. After July 1, 2018, the wage rate will be increased annually by an amount corresponding to the prior year’s increase in the Consumer Price Index for the Midwest.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett has been among those urging Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa General Assembly to raise the state’s minimum wage. He repeated after voting with the committee to recommend the $8.25 Linn County rate that unless the state takes action, Polk and other metropolitan counties in the state are likely to adopt their own minimum wage ordinances. That, he said, would create patchwork of different wage rates across Iowa as metropolitan counties approve raises, and smaller communities in the counties opt out, as they have in Johnson County.

“That would be a disaster,” Mr. Corbett said.

At the June 20 committee meeting, Mr. Corbett made the first motion to create a county minimum wage, proposing $8 an hour. When other members objected that the increase was insufficient, a proposal to create a $8.25 minimum effective Jan. 1, 2017, went to a vote. Mr. Corbett joined in supporting the extra 25-cent increase.

The proposal appeared to avoid a phased approach to more than $10 per hour that some committee members supported. Mr. Corbett said he views the issue from the perspective of a former business owner, and his concern is greatest for independent businesses who can’t spread the local wage increase in one area over multiple locations.

“My position is to … not place an undue burden on the business community by too aggressively raising the minimum wage,” Mr. Corbett said. “Also, we set it at a point where they [local governments] would probably go along with it. Above $8.25, I would have encouraged the city council to opt out.”

Some of the committee members who supported the $8.25 Linn County minimum wage were dissatisfied with the increase, viewing it simply as a stop-gap measure.

“We know that $8.25 is not enough, but if it is a starting amount that we can be build on and perhaps come up with an escalator, then we are willing to look at the $8.25 for a short period of time,” Rick Moyle, executive director of the Hawkeye Labor Council, the regional AFL-CIO alliance of labor unions, said in an email. “The bottom line here is that low-wage workers have not received a raise in years, and for that matter, wages have been stagnant for all workers when considering inflation for over 40 years.”

Both Mr. Rogers and Jim Houser of the Linn County Board of Supervisors voted against the increase, favoring a series of gradual increases. Four business representatives who attended the meeting of about 20 committee members abstained from voting on the increase.

In support of his original $8 proposal, Mr. Corbett said that if the minimum wage had gone up by the same percentages as Social Security payments since 2008, it would be at about $7.90. The percentage raises the Cedar Rapids City Council and mayor have received over the same period would bring it to $8 per hour, he said.

Mr. Moyle sees the minimum wage as a way to address growing wage inequality in the United States.

“If the minimum wage had gone up with worker productivity in the United States since 1968, it would be $18 per hour,” Mr. Moyle wrote. “If it had gone up at the same rate CEO pay went up, minimum wage would be around $28.”

In addition to voting for the minimum wage, the committee voted to reconvene near the end of the next session of the Iowa General Assembly to consider whether further increases are needed. That could allow the group to evaluate the minimum wage hike in light of any actions taken by the Iowa General Assembly, and changes in the cost of living.

To Mr. Rogers, the prospect of the Iowa General Assembly breaking out of partisan gridlock to pass a minimum wage increase isn’t strong enough to warrant waiting for state action. He frequently cites the example of Iowa’s motor fuel tax.

“It took almost 30 years for the state to increase the gas tax, despite the condition of our roads deteriorating in front of our eyes,” Mr. Rogers wrote. “It took multiple counties to have different smoking ordinances for the state to take action. If people want to wait for the state to take action, they should be prepared to wait a long time.”

Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly was surprised that the committee took the vote after just a few meetings.

“Even as of the meeting Tuesday, it was still trying to figure out what its role was – to make a recommendation or be a fact-finding body,” Mr. AbouAssaly said. “I don’t think many people were expecting we would reach that point in the third meeting.”

Still, Mr. AbouAssaly was not overly concerned, noting that the recommendation is not binding on the Board of Supervisors. He said it’s likely that many people will support it.