It wasn’t a surprise when the Wyoming House made short work of the minimum wage bill this week. After all, like many of the proposals that the conservative chamber killed, it had widespread popular support.
Yet the wide margin by which House Bill 45 was shot down – only nine votes for the proposal out of 60 members – should be shocking. It only takes a few minutes observing this bunch to realize they are out of touch with their constituents, but how far removed from the real world they are is truly mindboggling.
HB 45 was sponsored by Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne), and co-sponsored by another Cheyenne Democrat, Sen. Floyd Esquibel. Both lawmakers made arguments that should have drawn some support: The federal minimum wage has not been raised since it went up to $7.25 in 2009. The gap between the rich and poor has grown bigger than ever as wages stagnate.
Business owners have traditionally opposed increases in the minimum wage, claiming that such action would force them to lay off employees. But there’s no evidence that has ever been the case in previous instances when Congress has passed minimum wage hikes.
A poll in Wyoming by DFM Research Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., late last year found 69 percent supported raising the state’s minimum wage from the $5.15 an hour that’s now on the books to $9. It’s important to note that women who were polled strongly backed the increase, with 76 percent support.
Women, of course, have been treated incredibly shabbily by the “Equality State.” For many years Wyoming has had the worst gender wage gap in the nation, with women making only 64 cents for every dollar a man makes. Legislators have never stepped forward and even tried to bridge that gap.
The Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association was a major and influential opponent of HB 45. The measure would have gradually increased the minimum wage for workers who receive tips from $2.13 to $5 per hour. Officials of the organization actually said servers and others who rely on tips are “well compensated.” Some may be, but I’ll bet the vast majority of tipped employees in Wyoming would strongly dispute that claim.
The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. think tank, released a report last year that said if Congress would increase the minimum wage, it would affect more than 21 million workers across the country. In Wyoming, 35,000 workers would receive a much-needed and appreciated raise.
Why is the concept of people having more money to spend on their products if they actually have money in their pockets so mystifying to Republican lawmakers? Our all-GOP congressional delegation – Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis – all oppose the federal minimum wage bill with arguments about how it would increase unemployment and hurt the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Did these people ever take an economics class? And if so, did they pass?
Only one Republican, Rep. Mike Madden of Buffalo, voted with the Democrats in favor of HB 45. The rest all lined up behind their leaders and once again gave the working poor the finger.
I can’t let Democrats off the hook, though. Despite all of the attention throughout the nation to the minimum wage issue – especially after President Barack Obama signed an executive order mandating that federal contractors pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour – the discussion never took off in Wyoming. I suspect the lack of visible anger among low-paid employees has been caused because they have been beaten down by both their employers and their elected officials, who keep hammering home the message that they should be lucky they even have a minimum-wage job – or several of them – and just shut up.
It takes more than just sponsoring a bill or two in the Legislature to build popular support for such a political game-changer in Wyoming. Democrats should pick up the issue this election year and let people know they back making employers pay a liveable wage. It would lift up workers’ morale, boost our economy and hopefully send more people to the voting booth.