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October 27, 2006
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Transcript - October 27, 2006

BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS. Is it time to increase the pay for those who earn the least? Voters in six key states will be deciding whether or not to raise the minimum wage. Democrats hope this is the issue that gets their voters to the polls. Welcome to NOW. In these final days of campaigning, there's a battle going on in states around the country—over nickels, dimes and quarters. It's about minimum wage giving a bit more money to people who earn the least. And we're not just talking teenagers on summer jobs here on average people earning at or near the minimum wage bring home more than half their family's earnings. Congress hasn't touched the federal minimum wage in nearly a decade but change has been coming at the state level. Eleven states have already approved raising the minimum wage this year and six states have it on the ballot next month. Will minimum wage be the galvanizing issue that draws voters to the polls and ensures a change in Congress? Democratic strategists hope so. Steve brand produced our report. It's Labor Day in St. Louis, Missouri. Across the city, churches and synagogues are singing in harmony. A coordinated effort to address what they see as a pressing moral issue: Raising the minimum wage.

FR. ED MINDWILLER: Nobody can live on minimum wage in our society.

REV. AUDREY HOLLIS: There's no reason that anybody in these wonderful United States should not have a decent wage.

BRANCACCIO: Rev. W. Audrey Hollis, pastor of greater St. Mark's family church, is also a member of a worker's rights group called St. Louis area jobs with justice.

REV. W. AUDREY HOLLIS: Always in the US of A we talk about, oh if you work, you'll get ahead. You work, you'll get ahead. But these people will never get ahead they'll never get ahead on minimum wage. You can't.

LARA GRANICH: The Missouri catholic conference is now on board. The Presbyterian (unintel) Lovejoy. The heartland presbyteries...

BRANCACCIO: After waiting nearly a decade for congress to raise the national minimum wage, a broad coalition of labor, community and religious groups put together the campaign to help low wage workers. That effort mostly funded by labor unions is bearing fruit: initiatives on the ballot in November to raise the minimum wage in 6 states, including here in Missouri. And it is no bizarre coincidence that these minimum wage ballot initiatives happen to be in states with very competitive elections. The minimum wage campaigns are being coordinated with democratic strategists.

JOHN EDWARDS: We need to raise the minimum wage across the United States of America. In every single state.

BRANCACCIO: It's become a rallying cry for democrats who believe they've found the perfect issue to fire up voters to get to the polls come election day.

PEYTON: What are we supposed to do if the cost of living is getting higher but we're not making enough money?

BRANCACCIO: People like Melone Peyton.

PEYTON: I've never been without a job. And I'm 30 years old and I've been working since I was like 15.

BRANCACCIO: Melone lives in St. Louis. A high school graduate and a single mom, she says she's been working half her life mostly for just above the minimum wage.

BRANCACCIO: What do you do?

PEYTON: I'm a day care assistant. I usually work with two year olds and under.

BRANCACCIO: And give me a sense of what that pays.

PEYTON: I'm lucky to make $7.

BRANCACCIO: $7 an hour?

PEYTON: Um hmm.

BRANCACCIO: It adds up to about $700 a month.

MELONE: I don't make enough money to cover rent, it—it doesn't work. It doesn't work at all.

BRANCACCIO: Ready for this? Melone is home less, trying to take care of her family on such low wages has left her unable to afford a place to live for the past three years.

PEYTON: I've been in at least four shelters, staying with family and friends.

BRANCACCIO: Must be such a challenge with your young children.

PEYTON: It is. Cuz they don't seem... they think it's time for them to move every three, four months.

BRANCACCIO: Home for Melone and her 2 youngest kids, McKenzie and Makye, for the past 7 months has been here, at our ladies inn, a catholic church shelter for pregnant women. Melone's now expecting her 4th child. In order to stay here she's had to temporarily place her oldest son, who's 13, in a children's home during the day, Melone's required to do chores. Then she works the evening shift at the daycare center, staying till 11 or 12 at night. Since she can't afford a sitter, she takes her kids to work with her.

MELONE PEYTON: And then, when it's time to go home, we all pack up and come back to the shelter. My biggest thing is walking around 12 o'clock at night with my kids. That's pretty much kind of dangerous catching a bus at 12 o'clock with my kids, you know. It's, it's pretty much, it's a no win situation, basically.

BRANCACCIO: She gets some government help food stamps and some daycare assistance, but otherwise Melone has had to fend for herself. So you've been working pretty much straight through for 15 years, since the time you were 15 years old.

PEYTON: Mm-hmm. (AFFIRMATIVE)

BRANCACCIO: And yet... you don't have a house to live in.

PEYTON: Right.

BRANCACCIO: Something doesn't seem exactly right, does it?

PEYTON: Nope. No, it doesn't. No, (chuckle) it doesn't.

BRANCACCIO: It was back in 1937, in one of his fireside chats, that Franklin Roosevelt proposed a national minimum wage. 25 cents an hour at the beginning. The last time congress raised the federal minimum was in 1997, to 5 dollars and 15 cents an hour. Since then, its buying power has dropped by 20%- the lowest it's been in more than half a century. At the same time, CEO salaries have been rocketing out of sight. The average CEO makes more before lunch than a minimum wage worker makes in a year. There are many Americans who don't see a problem here ... many members of congress included.

CHRISTINE VESTAL: Traditionally, Republicans have not wanted to regulate business.

BRANCACCIO: Christine vestal has been following this issue for the online publication Stateline, affiliated with the pew research center.

CHRISTINE VESTAL: You can have the general public supporting it because, intuitively, they say workers deserve an increase, it's been too long. Republican politicians though, are pressured by business.

BRANCACCIO: This past summer, the congressional leadership did seem to acknowledge the political danger of this in an election year especially since congress had recently voted itself its 8th pay raise over the same span of time that they hadn't raised the minimum wage. So the same republicans who in June had voted against the minimum wage, came back a month later with a plan to raise it. But there was a catch: it could only be passed as part of a package that included a big reduction in the estate tax for the wealthiest Americans. They dared the democrats to vote against it:

THOMAS OF CALIFORNIA: House mw debate, 7/28/06 "all we have to do to provide an increase in the minimum wage is to vote ``yes.'' And I wonder how that person working for a minimum wage feels when you say, I couldn't vote ``yes'' for the increase in the minimum wage because I was offended the way it was presented to us."

Mr. RANGEL OF NEW YORK: House mw debate, 7/28/06 " you bring in the estate tax relief bill that is the real money, and because that sucker is so heavy it cannot get off the ground, you try to spray some perfume on this skunk, and you call it minimum wage."

BRANCACCIO: The measure passed the house, but not the senate. So come December it will be the longest period ever without a raise in the federal minimum, nine years and three months. Does this make you angry?

PEYTON: It makes me very angry. But I mean only thing I can do is vote. You know? So that's about the only and make sure I'm at the polls to vote.

BRANCACCIO: What's gotten Melone so stoked about voting is that state ballot initiative to raise Missouri's minimum wage from 5.15 to 6.50 an hour. And even though Melone sometimes earns 7 dollars an hour, she'd likely get a raise too, because of what economists call the spillover effect. Sara Howard represents the service employees union, one of the major backers of the initiative.

BRANCACCIO: Who would really benefit from an increase in the minimum wage in Missouri?

HOWARD: 72% of them are adults age 20 and over. One quarter of them are parents. Nearly 50% of them are the only income provider in their household. They're child care providers. They work in service industries, in retail. And so they're overwhelmingly affected by this.

BRANCACCIO: What did your people see when they were out there asking people if they thought now is the time to mandate an increase in the minimum wage?

HOWARD: The response was overwhelming. We had about six weeks to collect about 90,000 signatures across the state. We submitted over 210,000 signatures. People were tearing the clipboard out of our signature gatherers' hands.

AMEER: You wanna register?

BRANCACCIO: We found people passionate about the issue when we followed Ameer Abdul-Rahman, who's registering voters in Springfield.

RONNIE DEAN: Letting people pay that, and forcing them to have to work for that, is a disgrace that they have to do that. And their buying power is down to nothing.

BRANCACCIO: Democrats are counting on the minimum wage as a "wedge" to lift rumps off couches on Election Day. So they're pouring big money into those six states with minimum wage ballot initiatives, betting that the minimum wage could be a factor in whether congress stays red or goes blue come January.

VESTAL: It's said to be the Democrats answer to gay marriage. And gay marriage was on the ballot in 2004. And it is believed that it helped Bush win.

BRANCACCIO: You won't have forgotten that 2004 election. There were ballot initiatives in 11 states to ban same-sex marriage. And there's a good case to be made that extra voter turnout in Ohio because of that issue may have swung the whole national election for George w. Bush. Democrats are hoping that this year, extra voter turnout in states with minimum wage initiatives will help their candidates win some very tight elections.

MCCASKILL: Are we better than $5.15 an hour in America?

BRANCACCIO: It's tough to find any race closer than the senate contest in Missouri, where Melone lives. It's been in a statistical dead heat for months. Claire Mccaskill, the democratic challenger, has wrapped herself thoroughly in the minimum wage issue.

MCCASKILL: My opponent Senator Talent voted against minimum wage 11 times.

TALENT: People ask me what I've been working on in the Senate. Well, I've been working to make the tax cuts permanent, strengthening our laws to keep kids away from meth ...

BRANCACCIO: Jim talent, the republican incumbent, has not taken a position on the ballot initiative, saying it's a local matter. Talent certainly has the fundraising edge—his campaign has raised over 12 million dollars, nearly twice as much as Mccaskill's. But it hasn't helped him pull away. Mccaskill is hoping the minimum wage initiative will provide the coattails to help her to the senate.

GARY MARBLE: Before they vote yes on, hey, let's just give so and so a raise, remember, someone's paying for that. And it's probably your neighbor. It's probably that small business just down the street. It's not corporate America.

BRANCACCIO: Gary marble is president of associated industries of Missouri, a major player in the coalition of business interests that believe the minimum wage initiative will hurt their state. What happens to that business that you're worried about?

GARY MARBLE: Well, basically as that cost of labor goes up, you're increasing their cost of doing business significantly. Something has to give. Either you're gonna increase your prices to the point that you're no longer competitive with whomever. That's not an option. Then one final option is just eliminate jobs. You have to lay people off.

BRANCACCIO: Marble's coalition, called "save our state's jobs," has launched radio ads to make their point.

WOMAN'S VOICE (RADIO AD): I didn't think grocery shopping used to be so expensive!

MAN'S VOICE (RADIO AD): No it didn't used to be... I blame it on the minimum wage increase.

BRANCACCIO: You go to their web-site, and you see "it will cripple the state's small businesses. It'll drive up consumer costs. Could cost thousands of jobs." It sounds pretty scary.

HOWARD: It sure does. Unfortunately, it's not gonna come true. If you look at the states that have raised the minimum wage compared to the states that have not, that are still at the federal level, the states with the higher minimum wage have actually had faster job growth than the states that have not raised the minimum wage.

BRANCACCIO: That's no comfort for Gary Marble.

GARY MARBLE: My concern is that the outcome two, three, five, seven and ten years from now could be catastrophic.

BRANCACCIO: You see what's really got marble and others bothered is that the minimum wage initiative in Missouri like the 5 other state ballot initiatives includes indexing , which would adjust the minimum wage rate to the cost of living every year .

GARY MARBLE: Now we're talking about increasing every year forever the minimum wage in the state. Forever. We're looking at this going up to seven, 7.50, eight, 8.50 per hour for the entry level, non high school graduate jobs. Is that really what the state of Missouri wants?

BRANCACCIO: There is a record to look at in three of the four states that have already enacted minimum wage increases with indexing. And those records show job growth in most low wage industries.

MARBLE: Do I think something needs to be addressed, and we all need to work together to find that provision? Yes. But the proper way to do that is let's go to the legislature. Let those who are elected to represent the people go through the debate, through the hearing process, and get a bill passed.

HOWARD: Well, we've been waiting for the legislature for nearly ten years now. And in fact, there was a bill in the Missouri state legislature that would have raised the minimum wage just this past year. And we were all surprised that it actually got a hearing and then promptly died and went nowhere.

BRANCACCIO: Now you were in the state legislature.

MARBLE: I was a republican in the house, and we visited about it. The concern is that the Federal government, in my opinion, and honestly in the opinion of many, is the one that should be addressing this.

BRANCACCIO: Meanwhile, people like Melone Peyton - who struggle at the bottom end of the wage scale, are waiting.

PEYTON: It's a lot of people out here that really need that extra couple of cents. You know, it's a lot of single mothers out here. I am one. It's a lot of people that's sleeping in their cars and that's still gettin' up in the morning to go to work. And that do that it just doesn't make any sense.

BRANCACCIO: There's some people watching us on television who, this is on their minds. So I might as well just go ahead and ask it. Which is given your situation homeless, living in a shelter, struggling with very low pay why all the children? Maybe your life would be easier if you had fewer children?

PEYTON: That's true. That's very true. But I don't believe in abortion. I myself personally wouldn't have an abortion. I mean I've only been pregnant these four times. I love every last one of my kids. And I wouldn't do anything different.

BRANCACCIO: You ever get discouraged?

PEYTON: No. I mean I can't. I have kids. I mean I get disappointed. I get I do get disappointed and sometimes maybe a little depressed. But I have kids. So—

BRANCACCIO: So what keeps you going then?

PEYTON: My kids.

BRANCACCIO: The kids?

PEYTON: Oh, definitely my kids. Because I know I have something that's counting on me.

BRANCACCIO: And you're gonna vote.

PEYTON: oh yes, I am. Yes, I am. I'm gonna make sure I'm there.

BRANCACCIO: Why does it make a difference?

PEYTON: It's gonna make a big difference. The only I mean the difference is the only difference it wouldn't make is if you don't go vote.

BRANCACCIO: Missouri is one of six states with minimum wage ballot initiatives. What about other states? In Texas, the fight for a living wage could happen through a resurgence of organized labor. A web-exclusive report is available on our website. Go to PBS-dot-org for that. And now, for the latest on another hot button issue in the news this week, here's senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa.

HINOJOSA: The state of Kansas has always been a place where the country's hot-button political issues play out. This year, the state's conservative attorney general, Phill Kline, is running for re-election... and his campaign is making national news. A Washington watchdog group filed a complaint with the IRS this week, accusing some churches in Kansas of illegally participating in Kline's campaign... violating their tax-exempt status. It's not the first time Kline has been enmeshed in controversy. In 2005, NOW visited Kansas to look at Kline's stance on the law and abortion.

WOMAN: We have legislators who walk around and shake your hand and are very— happy to tell you that they're pro-life and just assume that you are, too.

HINOJOSA: Welcome to Kansas, where culture war issues like abortion and reproductive rights are the emotional touchstones politicians use to push voters out of their chairs and into the voting booth. Ever since a big event in 1991 when tens of thousands staged anti-abortion demonstrations in Wichita— the Summer of Mercy, it was called—Kansas is where many anti-abortion tornados have touched down. And if you want a case study in how the movement has moved out of the streets and into the halls of government, you need look no further than Kansas State Attorney General Phill Kline.

KLINE: We've put this cloud of secrecy over abortions

HINOJOSA: He's a passionately pro-life Republican who built his political career in part by opposing abortion. That said, Kline insists that as the state's chief law enforcer he'll uphold the law as laid down by the Supreme Court. But since winning his office by a razor-thin margin FOUR years ago, Kline has done a great job stirring up people on both sides of the abortion debate. The controversy began with what he says is an effort to protect children from rape.

KLINE: We have a— a serious issue with a severe predatory population in the United States that is sophisticated, that is aggressive in its predatory activity towards children. And I'm gonna do all I can to stop 'em.

HINOJOSA: Last year, David Brancaccio talked to Kline changes in Kansas's long-standing statutory rape law... including reporting requirements for evidence of underage sex.

BRANCACCIO: you issued a new interpretation of this state's child abuse reporting law, that required, as I understand it, doctors, school counselors and psychotherapists and others, to report sexual activity of people under the age of 16. Not necessarily rape, but just evidence of sexual activity as, under law, evidence of— of child abuse.

KLINE: The Kansas law makes it unlawful for a 15-year-old to have intercourse. That's the law. Most states have these age-of-consent laws.

HINOJOSA: Judge eventually ruled against Kline's reporting requirements, but the uproar over his reading of Kansas' statutory rape law was nothing compared to the bombshell he set off earlier LAST year. That's when the public learned Kline had persuaded a judge to issue subpoenas for the health records of women - and adolescent girls —who'd had abortions. Kline says he has evidence that doctors failed to properly report violations of Kansas' statutory rape law.

BRANCACCIO: Are you worried that there are a lot of examples in which Planned Parenthood sees these kids come through that may have been raped and they're keeping their mouths shut?

KLINE: Virtually every year in Kansas, we have between 70 and 80 children of 14 years of age and younger who receive abortion services. Now in Kansas law, they've been raped. And as the chief law enforcement official, it's my obligation to try to protect those children and— try to solve those crimes.

HINOJOSA: Kline says he also has evidence that clinic doctors illegally performed late term abortions.

KLINE: I must say that the women and children who receive abortions are under no criminal liability. They are not culpable. It is only a doctor who wrongfully performs an abortion contrary to the law, who can be— pursued with criminal penalties.

HINOJOSA: Critics accuse Kline of working to intimidate people who've had abortions - and those who might want one in the future - by subjecting their private, doctor-patient relationship to state scrutiny.

PETER BROWNLIE: This is a fishing expedition...this is a sweeping attempt to just gain records and rummage around and see what's there.

HINOJOSA: The story made headlines across the country. The New York Times editorial page called Kline's investigation a "shocking abuse of office." While Fox TV painted the political fallout in the stark terms of the culture war.

BILL O'REILLY: The New York Times and the LA Times have both demonized you... I'm sure you're aware of that. Well the women's groups are basically saying you're a fascist. That you want to violate the privacy of these women.

HINOJOSA: Being at the center of controversy is nothing new to Phill Kline. And this week's complaint cites a memo Kline wrote to his campaign staff that was leaked to the press last month. Outlining in detail his strategy for enlisting churches to get out the vote, Kline encouraged them to distribute campaign literature and organize fundraisers... potential violations of the law. Observers across the country are interested... because the IRS has promised to come down hard this year on any church that crosses the line. That's because a recent nationwide audit found that two out of three churches the IRS investigated had potentially violated the law. Kline has defended his church activities, claiming he sought guidance from state ethics officials and was told he was acting within the law. But many are skeptical because of what they think are his past failures to navigate issues of church and state.

BRANCACCIO: Are your efforts really an effort against abortion?

KLINE: We— we can debate one another's motivations forever and a day and try to disclaim or— or— or contradict.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I'll take you at your word. What are your motivations?

KLINE: My motivation is to enforce the law.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for now. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.



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