Gov­er­nor: Vot­ers spoke, wage law should stand

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Front Page - MICHAEL R. WICKLINE, HUNTER FIELD AND JOHN MORITZ

Gov. Asa Hutchin­son on Wed­nes­day ac­knowl­edged the will of the peo­ple and de­clared that he op­posed bills seek­ing to ex­empt teenagers, small busi­nesses and non­profit groups from the voter-ap­proved ini­ti­ated act to raise the state’s min­i­mum wage.

The Re­pub­li­can gov­er­nor’s re­marks at a lun­cheon of the Po­lit­i­cal An­i­mals Club in Lit­tle Rock came after the House Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare and La­bor Com­mit­tee on Tues­day night ad­vanced the two bills that would re­duce the min­i­mum wage law’s im­pact.

In No­vem­ber, vot­ers ap­proved rais­ing the state’s min­i­mum wage from $8.50 to $9.25 on Jan. 1 of this year, to $10 an hour next year and then to $11 an hour in 2021.

House Bill 1752 by Rep.

Robin Lund­strum, R-Elm Springs, would ex­empt busi­nesses with fewer than 25 em­ploy­ees from the wage law start­ing next year. Non­profit “de­vel­op­men­tal ser­vice providers” and non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions with an­nual bud­gets of less than $1 mil­lion also would be ex­empt un­der the bill.

An­other bill, House Bill 1753, also by Lund­strum, would ex­empt work­ers ages 16-19.

Lund­strum said Tues­day that the voter-ap­proved mea­sure would pose a chal­lenge for small busi­nesses next year when the min­i­mum wage is sched­uled to start ris­ing.

At Wed­nes­day’s lun­cheon, Hutchin­son was asked about Lund­strum’s leg­is­la­tion.

“Now I … see Kenny over here for the cham­ber that has worked on this,” he said, re­fer­ring to Ken Hall, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Arkansas State Cham­ber of Com­merce, which op­posed the ini­ti­ated act.

“I am very sym­pa­thetic to those needs and that’s re­ally one of the rea­sons that I did not sup­port the ini­tia­tive to raise that min­i­mum wage be­cause of what this means to teenage em­ploy­ment, what does this mean to small busi­ness and non­prof­its,” Hutchin­son said.

“But hav­ing said the con­cern about it, this is an act of the will of the peo­ple of Arkansas, and I do not be­lieve it should be changed by a leg­isla­tive act,” he said, draw­ing scat­tered ap­plause from the au­di­ence.

“I think that’s an im­por­tant mes­sage,” he said.

Also, the Re­pub­li­can Party of Arkansas re­leased a state­ment Wed­nes­day say­ing the min­i­mum wage ini­ti­ated act — and other cit­i­zen-ap­proved mea­sures — should be amended only when “cir­cum­stances so de­mand.”

“Un­til then, we should fol­low the di­rec­tion of the peo­ple and not at­tempt to al­ter it,” the state­ment said.

Lund­strum said Wed­nes­day that she plans to move for­ward with the leg­is­la­tion de­spite op­po­si­tion from the gov­er­nor and her party. She also said she plans to amend the bill to clar­ify that no busi­nesses may pay any work­ers less than $9.25 an hour — the cur­rent state min­i­mum wage.

“I re­al­ize the peo­ple voted,” she said. “But we vote for things … and some­times there are un­in­tended con­se­quences that need to be ad­dressed. I am con­fi­dent the peo­ple of Arkansas didn’t vote to hurt their non­prof­its.”

She also said the min­i­mum wage in­crease will hurt small busi­nesses and teens look­ing for their first jobs.

“It’s like belly but­tons; every­body’s got an opin­ion,” Lund­strum said. “We’re here to rep­re­sent the peo­ple of Arkansas. I’m lis­ten­ing to my non­prof­its and my small busi­nesses. It’s im­por­tant for teens to have jobs. … This is too im­por­tant to not step up and say some­thing right now.”

The bills will re­quire two-thirds of the ap­proval of the 100-mem­ber House and 35-mem­ber Se­nate. Lund­strum said she’d ac­cept the vote out­come of her fel­low mem­bers.

At the same time the gov­er­nor was ad­dress­ing the Po­lit­i­cal An­i­mals Club, House Democrats held a news con­fer­ence at the Demo­cratic Party of Arkansas head­quar­ters where they crit­i­cized the 6 p.m. Tues­day com­mit­tee vote to ad­vance Lund­strum’s pro­pos­als. They said it was held un­der “the lit­eral cover of dark­ness.”

David Couch, the Lit­tle Rock at­tor­ney who ran the bal­lot cam­paign to raise the min­i­mum wage, weighed in on Twit­ter later Wed­nes­day, say­ing “no one knew” ahead of time that Lund­strum’s bills were go­ing to be con­sid­ered.

“It was in­fu­ri­at­ing when [the] chair­man said, ‘Well, I see no one has signed up to speak against the bills,’” Couch wrote.

In­formed of the gov­er­nor’s com­ments after the Democrats’ news con­fer­ence had ended, Demo­cratic Party Chair­man Michael John Gray and House Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles Blake, D-Lit­tle Rock, ex­pressed grat­i­tude to­ward the gov­er­nor.

“To his credit, and I’ve said it when he does it, the gov­er­nor has bro­ken with the ide­o­log­i­cal points of view some­times to say ‘No,’” Gray said.

Asked if the Demo­cratic cau­cus was uni­fied in its op­po­si­tion to Lund­strum’s bills — which would in turn al­low the bills to be de­feated with only a frac­tion of Repub­li­cans vot­ing “no” — Blake said some Democrats may end up sup­port­ing the bills.

“We are the big-tent party,” Blake said. “We will try to con­vince [other mem­bers], but there is no man­date.”

Em­ploy­ers can ob­tain waivers from the state De­part­ment of La­bor un­der

which full­time stu­dents can be paid 85 per­cent of the min­i­mum wage, Hutchin­son told the Po­lit­i­cal An­i­mals.

“I have asked them to lean for­ward to make sure these are avail­able and can give [the waivers] for qual­i­fied em­ploy­ers,” Hutchin­son said. “So there is a risk there, but I think the pub­lic has spo­ken on it, and I think we need to abide by that.”

Denise Ox­ley, gen­eral coun­sel for the state De­part­ment of La­bor, said in an email to this news­pa­per that the cur­rent min­i­mum wage law pro­vides that a full-time stu­dent at­tend­ing any ac­cred­ited in­sti­tu­tion of ed­u­ca­tion in this state and who is em­ployed to work 20 hours or less when school is in ses­sion or 40 hours or less when school is not in ses­sion can be paid 85 per­cent of the state min­i­mum wage rate.

“The agency’s ad­min­is­tra­tive rules re­quire an em­ployer to ap­ply for a waiver, in part, so we can en­sure the em­ployer is aware of the hours re­stric­tion,” she wrote. “Ad­di­tion­ally, stu­dents per­form­ing ser­vices for the school col­lege, or univer­sity in which he or she is en­rolled and reg­u­larly at­tend­ing classes are ex­empt from the law.”

Nine em­ploy­ers and 58 stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram, Ox­ley said.

Asked af­ter­ward if he would veto the bills if they reach his desk, or if he is hop­ing they will be de­feated in the House, Hutchin­son said that’s “pre­mature.”

But he added: “I can­not sup­port those bills. I can­not sup­port the bills that al­ter sig­nif­i­cantly the min­i­mum wage that was passed.” He added, “we have ex­pressed it to some of the key peo­ple as well as the cham­ber of com­merce.” In­for­ma­tion from this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Andy Davis of the

Blake

Lund­strum

Hutchin­son

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