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Minnesota legislators hear perspectives on minimum wage increase

MOORHEAD, Minn. - Community members and business owners met with state representatives Wednesday at the Moorhead Public Library to share perspectives on jobs and wages in Minnesota.

Reps. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury, from the House Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs, were joined by Moorhead Democratic Rep. Ben Lien to hear testimony from constituents as part of a multicity tour.

While the state's unemployment rate is fairly low compared to the rest of the country, research collected by the committee shows a decline in household median income, and race and gender disparities in job recovery since the recession, Winkler said.

The discussion Wednesday largely centered on a minimum wage increase that would make Minnesota one of the highest in the nation.

Many workers in Minnesota earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, but the state's wages are actually set at $5.25 for small employers and $6.15 for larger employers.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he supports an increase and would "settle" for $9.50.

To make sure Minnesota has enough opportunities for livable wages, Winkler said the committee is also looking at education initiatives that match workforce needs so more workers have training for higher-paying jobs and state subsidies for businesses that pay workers more.

"Raising the minimum wage is just one way to solve this," he said.

Jen Engquist, who works with Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, said she supports an increase in the minimum wage because she sees people struggling in low-wage jobs every day.

"We are talking about a dignified wage in Moorhead, which is something that, someday, we are going to be very proud of," she said.

While several community members voiced their support for a minimum wage increase from a moral standpoint, Moorhead business owners say an increase would further the strain of operating a business in Minnesota compared with North Dakota.

Dave Scheer, who owns restaurants in Moorhead and Fargo, said a minimum wage increase would add another hurdle for operating a business in Minnesota. He said Moorhead is a "desert" compared to vibrant Fargo because of the uneven playing field.

"It's totally unfair on this side of the river," Scheer said.

Moorhead Councilman Mark Altenburg urged lawmakers to work closely with the city to consider how changes would negatively affect border communities like Moorhead.

"We will not have the jobs to offer people if Fargo and West Fargo have the opportunity to beat us over the head with the minimum wage increase," Altenburg said.

The committee will report its research and constituent testimony back to the Legislature, which could consider action later this year.