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House Democrats try again for a minimum wage hike

Though the proposals are unlikely to get very far, House Democrats are again pushing for a minimum wage increase in Texas.

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The odds of passing a minimum wage hike in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature are slim.

But with the minimum wage of $7.25 unchanged for many years, House Democrats on Tuesday once again pitched a variety of proposals in hopes of increasing pay for some of the lowest-paid Texans.

“If we’re going to be looking out for working families, we ought to be about the business of seeing to it that they can move themselves above poverty as much as possible and to be able to afford themselves and get off of government assistance like food stamps, CHIP and Medicaid," state Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston told the House Business and Industry Committee in laying out her proposal.

Thompson’s proposal would increase the minimum wage incrementally, reaching $10.10 per hour by 2022. A separate measure by state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to set the minimum wage at $10.10.

Some Democrats want to go even higher. The minimum wage would go up to $15 under proposals by state Reps. Roberto Alonzo of Dallas and Ron Reynolds of Missouri City. And another proposal by state Rep. Armando Walle of Houston would also ask voters to approve a hike to $15.

The Democratic bill authors pitched the increases as a way to improve life for low-income Texans and to reduce the number of people enrolled in government assistance programs. An individual is classified as living in poverty if they make less than $12,082 a year. A Texas resident working 40 hours a week at the minimum wage would make just about $3,000 more than that, but that’s still low enough to qualify for some government assistance programs, the Democrats pointed out.

But Republicans on the committee appeared skeptical of the proposals and raised concerns about wage inflation and a possible negative impact on small businesses.

“I just worry we’re going to benefit one group of people to the detriment of another,” state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas said of the possibility that a higher wage requirement could actually reduce employment.

State Rep. Hugh Shine of Temple said he worried wage inflation would have “second- and third-order effects” on Texas businesses and ultimately “adversely affect the economy.” And state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford pointed out that the business community did not want a minimum wage hike.

“Why haven’t those people self-imposed this if it’s so obvious that this is a good idea?” Stickland said.

Throughout the hearing, Democrats also insisted that many Texans working minimum-wage jobs are heads of households — many of whom are working multiple jobs to make ends meet — and not teenagers working part-time jobs as opponents claimed.

In 2015, 111,000 of the nearly 6.1 million hourly workers in Texas made $7.25 an hour, while 176,000 were paid less, according the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A majority of those workers were women.

“All they want to do is get paid for the work that they do — nothing more or nothing less,” Walle told the committee.

For years, Democrats in the Legislature have been unsuccessful in their push for minimum wage increases even as other states — 29 as of January 2016 — have set minimum wages higher than the federal requirement.

During the previous legislative session, House Democrats filed several proposals to increase the minimum wage, but only one measure made it to the full House for a vote. That proposal would have asked voters to approve a constitutional amendment setting the minimum wage at $10.10, but it was voted down on a mostly party-line vote with only two Republicans supporting the legislation.

Because of the Legislature's historical unwillingness to touch the issue at the state level, advocates for higher minimum wages have instead looked to local governments for wage increases. But any hikes at the municipal level are limited to local government employees or private-sector contractors that do business with those municipalities because state law pre-empts local governments from setting a city- or county-wide minimum wage that could require the private sector to increase wages for the lowest-paid employees.

Pitched as efforts to “restore local control,” two other proposals by House Democrats — state Reps. Justin Rodriguez of San Antonio and Lina Ortega of El Paso — would essentially reverse that state law.

Ortega told the panel that her proposal “does not automatically increase the minimum wage, but it does give local government [the power] to do so.”

When Stickland questioned whether local control on this issue meant local governments could set minimum wages lower than the federal requirement, Ortega responded that her bill would only allow for increases.

“They can’t violate federal law,” she said.

It’s unclear whether any minimum wage proposal will make it out of committee, which is chaired by a Democrat but made up of three Democrats and four Republicans. The bills were left pending in committee on Monday.

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Economy Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature