Minimum-wage increase proposals are getting the maximum push from Democrats in statehouses in more than half of U.S. states, highlighting the politically potent income inequality issue this year.
Lawmakers in at least 30 states — including Wisconsin — are sponsoring or are expected to introduce wage hike measures. They hope to notch state-level victories as President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats remain stymied in attempts to raise the federal minimum wage above $7.25 an hour. The president called for a hike in the minimum wage in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28.
Even in Republican-dominated capitals where the bills are longshots — like Wisconsin — the measures still give Democrats a chance to hammer home the popular theme of fair wages in what is an election year in most places.
"It's a no-brainer for any Democrat," said Neil Sroka, a strategist for progressive groups who is communications director at the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America. "Congress is failing. They can take real action right in the states and have a demonstrable impact right here at home. For politics and policy, it's a winning strategy."
Minimum wage is a perennial issue that has taken on a higher profile amid the slowly recovering economy and growing public debate about income inequality. A Quinnipiac University poll this month found 71 percent of Americans in favor of raising the minimum wage, including more than half of Republicans polled.
Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, calls it an "organic issue that's bubbling up from the grassroots." But it's also being pressed by politicians and labor unions. Democrats challenging Republican governors have taken up the issue, and there are ballot initiatives in several states.
"We are facing a huge income gap that only continues to widen, where the workers at the top see large wage increases and the workers at the bottom are at a standstill. That needs to change," said Massachusetts Democratic Senate President Therese Murray.
Five states passed minimum wage measures last year, and advocates hope that number will grow as states from New Hampshire to Washington consider proposals. Many would push families above the federal poverty line, which is $15,730 for a family of two. In Iowa, a bill would hike the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. A Rhode Island bill would raise it from $8 to $9. And a year after New York approved a multiyear minimum wage hike, Assembly Democrats introduced another bill for 2014 sponsored by Labor Committee Chairman Carl Heastie of New York City that would accelerate the increase.
Labor unions and other advocates point to workers such as Andrew Lloyd, who cleans the cabins, bathrooms and cockpits of airplanes between flights at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City for $8 an hour. With a wife and 1-year-old, he relies on food stamps to help stock the refrigerator and his paychecks barely cover diapers and other needs of his daughter. He said he can't afford a new pair of socks for himself.
"It's not enough. What we're making is not enough to support," Lloyd said. "There's just no way they can justify what is going on is right."
Opponents, many of them Republicans, argue that the higher wages translate into fewer jobs and higher consumer costs.
So wage hike bills in Republican-controlled legislatures, like Wisconsin, Florida and South Carolina, are not expected to pass.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said the claim that working families need the boost to make ends meet makes him "cringe, because I know that statement is a lie."
"Even if we did raise the minimum wage, working families will still not be able to make ends meet on those jobs," Scott said. "We need good jobs that lead to good careers for our families, and that's what I am focused on."
Already, a Democrat-backed bill to increase Indiana's minimum wage by $1 was blocked by majority Republicans on a party-line vote.
Another leftover wage hike proposed by Democrats in Wisconsin failed to gain enough GOP support in the Wisconsin Senate recently, but a new measure has been filed for Republicans to deal with — or not — in 2014.
Win or lose, the legislation gives Democrats a potential weapon against Republican opponents. Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist with close ties to labor unions, said Republicans who oppose a wage hike will face fierce criticism.
"There's a lot of people in this state that are making the minimum wage that are voting Republican right now," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Tennessee, where they plan to introduce a minimum wage bill this year. "Maybe if they see that they don't have their best interests in their heart, they might change their minds."
There's hope that success will breed more success. Vale, a top adviser at the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, said the thinking behind the push is to get things started at the state level, where lawmakers come into more direct contact with their constituents. Once state legislatures start moving, it will lend momentum to a federal expansion.
In Minnesota, Rep. Ryan Winkler said as the debate spreads to more states, lawmakers might be more comfortable boosting the wage floor in his state.
"It's not peer pressure, but it's safety in numbers," Winkler said. "It makes people feel like this is a mainstream thing to do."