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Arkansas Republicans fall in line to support popular minimum wage hike

October 9, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
This November, Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota will vote on proposals to raise their states’ minimum wages. In Republican-controlled Arkansas, where the hourly wage is lower than the federal minimum, polls show overwhelming support for the measure. Jacob Kauffman of KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In this midterm election, the fight for control of the Senate dominates the headlines.

But as Jacob Kauffman of KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock, Arkansas, reports, there are issues like raising the minimum wage which might be key to driving voters to the polls.

GLORIA SMITH, Arkansas Community Organizations: We’re letting you know so you can go out and vote and vote for this.

JACOB KAUFFMAN, KUAR: Going door-to-door in the Oak Forest neighborhood of Little Rock, Gloria Smith is urging people to get out to vote for a minimum wage increase.

GLORIA SMITH: And I’m just coming out telling you go out and vote for the minimum wage, $8.50 an hour.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: Currently, the Arkansas minimum wage is $6.25 an hour, a dollar less than the federal minimum wage. Georgia and Wyoming are the only other states to have rates below the federal level.

The proposal on the Arkansas ballot would raise the rate in stages to $8.50 by January 2017.

GLORIA SMITH: And I know you’re a registered voter.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: Smith says such an increase is long overdue.

GLORIA SMITH: It would help a lot of families, especially mothers that have children in day care. A lot of people have to go to churches to get food to make out because they can’t afford to buy food. So, I would to see business pay people what they’re worth.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: Thirty-six-year-old Gregory Stewart would certainly like to see employers pay a higher wage. He holds down two jobs throughout the year at a restaurant and a ball park. And still, to make ends meet, he and his two daughters had to move in with his mother and grandmother.

He says raising his wages would make a huge difference for his family.

GREGORY STEWART: Certainly being able to provide a good home life where they can have at least three very good meals a day.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: But Roger Lacy, who owns a janitorial service company, says he believes raising the minimum wage would actually hurt the people it intends to help.

Lacy employs more than 200 workers. Most are part-time and nearly all earn the minimum wage.

ROGER LACY, Businessman: My big opposition to the minimum wage is what it does to the teenage community. Currently,  about 24 percent of minimum wage workers are teenagers. And when you price the per-hour rate to where it’s people don’t want to hire them, then they won’t get on the ladder to getting a job.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: Arkansas is one of five states where voters will decide this fall whether to raise their state’s minimum wage. Ironically, four of the five states are Republican strongholds. Democrats are hoping that these measures will help spur liberal-leaning voters to turn out in greater numbers, which could help Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

GREGORY SHUFELDT, University of Arkansas at Little Rock: There’s a large number of voters that vote in presidential elections, but drop off or don’t vote in off-year elections. So issues like the minimum wage and ballot initiatives are meant to kind of reach those voters to get them to go to the polls.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: Gregory Shufeldt is a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and says it’s no accident that in most of the states where minimum wage is on the ballot, there’s also a competitive Senate race.

In Arkansas, the race is between two-term incumbent Mark Pryor, the Democrat, and Republican U.S. Representative Tom Cotton. Pryor is the first statewide elected official in Arkansas to support the increase. Cotton, until recently, said he opposed minimum wage increases, but just two days after the measure was officially put on the ballot, he said he would vote for the November initiative.

With polls showing overwhelming support for the measure, Republicans have virtually no choice but to indicate approval, says Shufeldt.

GREGORY SHUFELDT: And they might have philosophical reasons or economic reasons why they think it might be a bad idea, but, politically, it’s a nonstarter for them.

DAVID BRANSCUM, (R) Arkansas State Representative: My dad started this mill in 1947.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: That is certainly the case with state Representative David Branscum.

DAVID BRANSCUM: People don’t realize the expenses.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: He owns a cattle ranch and a sawmill in Northern Arkansas. He pays above the minimum wage, but says, as a businessman, he’s opposed to having the government dictate the wages he pays employees.

DAVID BRANSCUM: The reality is, in a small business environment that I’m in, I can only pay so much. I mean, I am dictated by the national markets. The lumber market, the tire market, they all tell me what I’m going to get. I have no control over that.

But if I — if the government is going to come in and say, well, all right, you’re going to have to do this, then maybe I can’t. Maybe I shut down.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: But as a representative, Branscum says he’s going to have to support the ballot initiative.

DAVID BRANSCUM: Well, that’s because, what, 80 percent of the people are for it. I mean, it’s hard to come out and be strongly opposed to a position when everybody wants to try to help everybody out. That’s why we’re here, to try to help people. But, as a Republican, you don’t want to hurt business. So it’s a delicate balancing act that we have to do.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: Patrick Hays is the former mayor of North Little Rock. A Democrat, he’s running for a U.S. House seat in Arkansas’ most Democratic-leaning district. He recently greeted people at the Taste of the Town, an annual festival featuring local restaurants.

He says he’s hopeful that, with Republicans saying they support minimum wage measures, there may even be enough bipartisan cooperation to get a federal increase passed.

PATRICK HAYS,(R) Arkansas Congressional Candidate: There needs to be an increase. And whether it be $10.10 or whether it be something less, I would hope that we could arrive at that on a bipartisan basis and then go forward, because I think the country — the country will benefit by that.

JACOB KAUFFMAN: Prospects of a federal increase are unlikely, with many Democrats, including Senator Pryor, opposed to a higher rate.

But passage of the five different state measures is quite likely, especially if history is any guide. Since 2002, 10 states have voted on minimum wage increases, and all 10 measures were approved with overwhelming support.

 

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