Red states say America needs a raise

Voters in six states that helped send Bush back to the White House for a second term in 2004 sent a different message this year, approving ballot measures that increase the minimum wage in their states.

Congress has frozen the federal minimum wage at $5.15 an hour since 1997. But more than half of the states — 29 plus the District of Columbia — have taken action, either through referendum or legislatively, to raise the state minimum.

On Nov. 7, voters in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio cast their ballots to raise their own wages or give their neighbors a raise. That increased the number of states who have raised the minimum to 35, the same number required for a constitutional amendment.

“This provides additional momentum for us to move the minimum wage forward at the federal level and in additional states,” said the Rev. Paul Sherry, coordinator of Let Justice Roll, the national coalition spearheading the campaign.

“Let Justice Roll and our partners succeeded in making minimum wage the values issue of the 2006 electoral campaign,” he said. “It’s an issue that brings people together across all lines. We believe — and people responded to this — a job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”

Sherry, LJR organizers from five states, business leaders and the Rev. Bob Edgar, executive director of the National Council of Churches, spoke to reporters Nov. 13 via teleconference.

Building on the momentum from the Nov. 7 victories, they said, the campaign is moving to turn up the heat. Sherry and Edgar said religious leaders from a wide variety of faiths plan to meet immediately with Congress and the White House to push increasing the federal minimum wage onto the front burner of the agenda for the 110th Congress. Within days of the election, LJR received calls from labor, community and faith-based activists in Kansas, New Hampshire and Oklahoma inviting them into their states to work on raising the minimum wage there.

Despite the much-ballyhooed increase in jobs, Ohio workers are poor, said Katie Heins, LJR lead organizer in Ohio. Official unemployment rates in the state are low, but Cincinnati and Cleveland are two of the poorest cities in the country, she said. In rural areas like Athens County, folks are working, but the poverty rate has skyrocketed.

A yardstick of support for increasing the minimum wage came early in Ohio’s two-year campaign when the state’s labor-based LJR coalition collected 750,000 signatures of registered voters from around the state just to place the issue on the ballot. It was noteworthy that on Election Day, CNN exit polling showed that a majority of all churchgoers in Ohio including many evangelicals voted for the minimum wage hike, Heins noted.

Adnan Durrani, president of Condor Ventures, told reporters, “From the point of view of a venture capitalist, especially in Ohio [where] we’ve invested in over 120 companies, the economic case for minimum wage is closed and shut. It is a sound business decision to increase the minimum wage.” Durrani pointed out that “90 percent of each $1 increase in the minimum wage directly impacts the economy,” making it “a direct lever” triggering broad positive results. He said, “It increases employment. It increases retail sales. It increases the distribution of income.”

In Montana, 65 percent of voters cast their ballots for Bush in 2004. But this year, said Doug Mitchell, campaign manager for Raise Montana, 73 percent approved raising the minimum wage. It is “a strong bipartisan statement that is going to send a very clear message to Washington, D.C., that even ‘red states’ like Montana stand firmly behind workers.” he said.

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