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Minnesota constitutional amendment proposal on minimum wage is criticized, but advances

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ST. PAUL -- The DFL leaders of the state House and Senate plan to work directly with each other next week on a compromise to end the bogged-down negotiations on a minimum wage increase.

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Legislative proposals to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage have stalled in a conference committee seeking to hammer out a compromise between House and Senate versions. Meanwhile, an effort to seek a constitutional amendment linking the wage to inflation passed its first hurdle Friday, despite objections from many on both sides of the wage debate.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he supports pushing the wage to $9.50 an hour and that there could be “numerous ideas” about how to index the wage to inflation. However, “I’m not sure a constitutional amendment is the way to go.”

That’s a reference to a bill put forward this week, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, that would ask voters in November whether they support adding an annual inflation adjustment to the constitution.

Bakk reiterated Friday that there is not enough support in the Senate to pass a minimum wage bill that contains an inflation index. He also raised the possibility of going higher than a $9.50 wage, which Thissen seemed to resist.

Bakk said he’s confident he and Thissen can reach a deal, possibly next week.

Minnesota’s minimum wage for large employers currently is $6.15, among the lowest in the nation. In practice, most minimum wage jobs in Minnesota pay the federal rate of $7.25 per hour. An increase to $9.50 would make Minnesota one of the highest minimum-wage states.

Earlier Friday, the constitutional amendment bill, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, passed on a mixed voice vote in the Senate jobs committee and is headed for the rules committee, which is chaired by Bakk.

The bill sets the wage at $9.50 by 2015, though a spokesman for Bakk said the official Senate position remains $9.50 by 2016.

It would use the “implicit price deflator” as the metric for inflation. The inflator would kick in in 2017.

Rest said generally she believes things should not go in the constitution if they can be accomplished in statute, but if an issue becomes volatile enough, “it is not unseemly” to send it to voters.

None of the dozen or so people who testified agreed. The speakers, representing a range of business, labor, faith and nonprofit interests on both sides of the wage increase debate, favored having the issue resolved by lawmakers.

“We’ve already elected people to speak for us,” said Ben Gerber, manager of labor and energy policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Republican committee members blamed the DFL leadership in both chambers for turning to a constitutional amendment to resolve differences they haven’t been able to work out in committee.

“The DFL is having a heck of a problem conferencing this bill,” said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, suggested the amendment idea was not a serious proposal but rather a negotiating ploy to put pressure on the conference committee.

“I think this committee is being used in political gamesmanship,” Weber said. “We weren’t elected to be political pawns.”

DFLers on the committee said they were supporting it primarily as an option to receive further discussion.

“This may be our only path forward, and I think we have to be open to that path,” said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing.

The minimum-wage conference committee — made up of three DFLers from the House and three from the Senate — held several meetings earlier in the month and then took a break for a few weeks. They met most recently Thursday and recessed quickly after it was clear the House continued to want an annual inflator the Senate said it could not support.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he supports raising the minimum wage to $9.50 and indexing it to inflation. He says it should be done through legislation, not a constitutional amendment.

The DFL governor opposes having any amendments on the ballot this year, though that decision rests with lawmakers.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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