Lawmakers consider Miss. wage increase

Published 8:11 pm Friday, January 5, 2007

Instead of consulting high-paid experts with million-dollar contracts, Rep. Ricky Cummings, D-Iuka, asked blue-collar workers about increasing the minimum wage.

Cummings spent two years roaming the streets, talking to neighbors and others struggling to stretch their family budgets on Mississippi’s minimum wage. As a result, he has joined sponsorship of a bill to increase the minimum wage to $7.25 by early 2008.

“All of government should not be built around large corporations,” Cummings said.

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Several business lobbying groups, including the Mississippi Economic Council, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, are lining up against the proposal to set a wage that’s 40 percent higher than the national base of $5.15 an hour.

MMA president Jay Moon said the increase “would diminish the supply of entry-level jobs and hinder overall job growth.”

Others, even those who make more than minimum wage, disagree.

“There’s no way you can make it on minimum wage,” said Jackson area resident Gary Ragsdale, 32, who works at a printing plant making $13 an hour.

“It’s impossible to pay lot rent, a trailer note, a car note, insurance, the light bill, all the things you have to pay, even if you’re making more than minimum wage,” he said.

Over strong opposition from Gov. Haley Barbour, the Democrat-controlled House Labor Committee approved a bill Thursday to set the minimum wage in Mississippi at $6.25 an hour on July 1 and $7.25 an hour on Jan. 15, 2008.

The committee vote came hours after Republican Barbour told more than 1,000 people at a meeting of the Mississippi Economic Council that such a steep increase could stymie economic development.

“Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee must be laughing up their sleeves at the idea that Mississippi would do that and drive jobs to Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas and Louisiana,” Barbour said.

The new Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress convened Wednesday and promised quick action on proposals to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over two years.

Some supporters of the Mississippi proposal acknowledge a federal increase could erase their efforts here. It’s not clear whether the Mississippi bill has enough support to pass, even in this statewide election year. Overriding a governor’s veto would take two-thirds support in each chamber.

“Those workers who start at and stay at the minimum wage generally do so for lack of skills,” Moon said. “Increasing the skills of minimum wage workers, instead of pricing them out of the job market, is the answer.”

Lawmakers in several other states, including Kentucky and Nebraska, are pushing for state minimum wage increases this year.

Arkansas, Arizona, California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania recently raised their minimum wage, some going as high as $7.50 an hour.

The bill is House Bill 237.