It won’t be easy for Democrat Gov. Pat Quinn to find enough lawmakers to vote for the minimum wage increase, what with business groups pronouncing it a “job killer.”
But the best news for Quinn is that key Democratic lawmakers already are lined up behind an idea that’s popular with a large number of low-income workers. Senate President John Cullerton and House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie quickly embraced it. Cullerton flatly predicted, “We’ll be able to pass a minimum wage bill.”
“I support it. It’s very, very popular in Illinois,” Cullerton said. “There is overwhelming support in the electorate.”
The electorate is the target audience in Quinn’s State of the State speech as he ramps up for a 2014 re-election campaign. His office estimated 500,000 Illinoisans could benefit from the wage hike. That’s a huge number of potential supporters who might be easily persuaded to cast a vote for a politician that helped them put more money into their pockets, particularly one like Quinn whose margin of victory in both the 2010 primary and general elections were far from overwhelming.
Republicans, including potential rivals in 2014, refused to get behind the minimum wage hike. House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego charged Quinn’s priorities are askew when the “elephant in the room” is the state’s $96.8 billion pension debt — a worst-in-the-nation status that has sent the state’s credit rating into a tailspin.
The pension battle has Quinn locked in a protracted war with union workers who are fighting against any rollbacks in retirement benefits at the same time they are unable to come to terms with the administration on a labor contract.
But as Quinn revealed his minimum wage push to a joint session of the House and Senate, he sought to wrap his arms around the working class, saying Illinois must “honor the productivity of our workers.”
“Our businesses are only as good as the employees who drive their success,” Quinn said. “Nobody in Illinois should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty. That’s a principle as old as the Bible.”
Quinn said the state minimum wage — currently $8.25 an hour — should be bumped up over four years to “at least $10 an hour.”
But beyond the finances, Quinn may hope a populist pocketbook issue can boost his own low approval ratings as he prepares to fight potentially big-name Democratic challengers like Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Bill Daley, the former white House chief of staff and a high-profile heir to the Daley family legacy.
Quinn called for a minimum-wage hike during the 2010 governor’s race, while Republican challenger Sen. Bill Brady opposed it.
Following Quinn’s speech on Wednesday, Brady said he wanted to review Quinn’s plan when there details are rolled out.
Hinsdale Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard, who like Brady is eyeing Quinn’s job, said he does not support the minimum wage hike. “We need to create better jobs, not minimum wage jobs, for those who are trying to raise a family,” Dillard said.
The chief sponsor of the minimum wage increase is Sen. Kimberly Lightford, the Maywood Democrat on Cullerton’s leadership team. She has sought to negotiate with foes and backers of the legislation for eight months. She said she wants to roll out a bill in the next few weeks.
One controversial provision Lightford is working through is her desire to raise the minimum wage for restaurant waiters and waitresses, who get a fraction of $8.25 regular minimum wage and get subsidized by tips.
“Businesses should be able to pay them the full $8.25,” Lightford said. But with smaller restaurants in particular balking, Lightford said, finding a happy medium is “not an easy task.”
Still, she said the chance of passage in the Senate “looks good” because she has been priming colleagues about the issue over the last two years.
“It’s not new today, which is very helpful,” Lightford said.
In a town where a raised eyebrow or a snarl can result in major political ramifications, Lightford said she saw House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, clapping when Quinn talked about raising the minimum wage.
“That was a good sign,” Lightford said.
But Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said he did not believe the speaker had taken a position.
Currie, Madigan’s top lieutenant, plans to sponsor the minimum wage hike in the House if it passes the Senate. “I’m hopeful the governor will be able to put some might behind his words, and we’ll see,” Currie said.
Still, questions remain about the hurdles the issue would face.
Democratic Skokie Rep. Lou Lang, also on Madigan’s leadership team, said raising the minimum wage is a “tough issue to move in these times. We’re going to say to employers, ‘Well, we’re going to bump up your personnel costs’…. It’s a difficult sell, but it’s a discussion we should have.”
Lang offered that “maybe $10 an hour is not the right number. Or maybe it is the right number, but we can’t afford to do it as quickly as we would like. We have to think this through and not just accept a number given to us in a speech. We have to see some facts, some figures, but mostly requires some negotiation and some leadership.”
That’s not the kind of leadership the National Federation of Independent Business would welcome, said state director Kim Clarke Maisch.
She said the state already has the 4th highest minimum wage in the nation, and the increase would push the state to No. 1. Currently, the state of Washington owns the highest minimum wage at $9.19 per hour, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.
Illinois is surrounded entirely by states with lower minimum wage rates, putting Illinois and its businesses at a disadvantage, she said.
Maisch said Quinn’s proposal to hike the minimum wage now is “ill-timed and frankly wrong."
After his speech, Quinn said he believed the prospects of getting the minimum wage hike passed are “pretty good.”
As he descended the Capitol steps next to the House chamber, Quinn added: “ I think the people are for it.”
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