Minimum wage increase qualifies for ballot; opponents to mount legal challenge

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 692 views 

An effort to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas to $11 per hour has enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Opponents are raising money for a legal challenge.

Secretary of State Mark Martin wrote in a letter dated Aug. 16 to David Couch, sponsor of the petition, that the ballot initiative had “no more than 84,526 valid signatures.” The required number of valid signatures required for the initiated act was 67,887. Supporters initially submitted 113,160.

If voters approve the act in November, the state’s hourly minimum wage would increase from the current $8.50 to $9.25 in 2019, $10 in 2020, and $11 in 2021.

Couch’s group, Arkansans for a Fair Wage, said in a press release that it has raised $505,300 and spent $475,357.58, leaving it with $29,942.42 on hand, according to papers filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

Couch said the money was spent qualifying for the ballot. For the campaign, he said the group hopes to raise “at least the amount that we had for signature collection.”

The group has hired a campaign manager, Kristin Foster, who is co-founder and executive director of River Valley Food 4 Kids, an anti-child hunger and anti-poverty organization. Couch said the group will run a traditional campaign with digital, mail and phone outreach and “maybe even some television.”

He said the message will be that “Hard-working Arkansas families deserve a raise. You look at the statistics, you see a mom and a dad that work for minimum wage now or a little bit above, they just can’t meet their household expenses, can’t feed their families, so it’s just good for the families.”

A group, Arkansans for a Strong Economy, has formed to oppose the effort. Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, is the chairman. Among the other officers are Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, and Steve Ferren, executive vice president of the Arkansas Oil Marketers Association.

As of July 31, it had not raised any money, according to the latest Arkansas Ethics Commission report. Zook said the group doesn’t have money in hand but does have enough commitments to pay for the cost of a legal challenge regarding the signature collection process.

Zook did not yet know what violations signature collectors might have committed.

“You never know,” he said. “It’s a very complicated process. There are lots of i’s to dot and t’s to cross, and you look for any deficiencies, and that’s the basis for the challenge.”

If the legal challenge isn’t successful, Zook said, “then we’ll reevaluate and figure out what to do next.”

Zook said the state already has the highest minimum wage in the region, and if this passes, it will be one of the highest in the country. He said low-income earners would be the most hurt by a minimum wage increase.

“This is not just found money sitting on the ground,” he said. “Businesses respond to these unrealistic wage levels by reducing hours, reducing employment. Lower-income people have a harder time finding a job – especially African-American young people and Hispanic young people. They find it even more difficult because low-wage jobs tend to dry up because there are artificial economic pressures.”

Governor Asa Hutchinson declined to take a position on the proposed increase Thursday.

“I’ve always said that we ought to periodically raise the minimum wage,” he said. “I prefer that it be done by legislative enactment versus putting it on the ballot periodically. It’s easier to adjust on a regular basis versus setting down what (will happen) over the next three years in incremental increases when you don’t know what the state of the economy is going to be. So it’s not my preference. The people generally support that, and I support an increase in the minimum wage. It’s the manner of the vehicle in which you do it. That’s my comment for now. As to how I’ll vote, I’ll probably make that more clear down the road.”

His Democratic opponent, Jared Henderson, supports it, saying, “The governor has never been consistent on his support for raising the minimum wage as we saw him flip-flop on his position during the 2014 campaign and as he continues to dodge the issue now, but I am proud to stand with working Arkansans in support of this measure. This initiative is thoughtful towards small businesses and a responsible approach to ensuring workers and our economy benefit as a result.”

The Libertarian candidate for governor, Mark West, said he opposes the initiative.

“I prefer wages be set by free market voluntary exchange of services,” he said.

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