The Senate sponsor of a bill granting wide exemptions to Arkansas’ newly passed minimum wage increase said he “is not leaving the session without some relief for my constituents.” But the Senate president pro tempore said support for the measure is lacking, and another senator said he is “not for it and almost none are.”
Voters in November passed an initiated act to increase the state’s minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $9.25 on Jan. 1, to $10 in 2020, and to $11 in 2021. Voters approved the act, 68-32%, in November. Out of 884,830 votes cast, 605,784 voted yes.
Senate bill 115 by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, would exclude all individuals under age 18, as well as employees of educational institutions and nonprofits. It would increase the number of employees for which an employer would qualify for an exemption from 3 to 49.
“We’re listening to everybody,” Ballinger said in an interview Wednesday (Jan. 30). “We’ll implement some amendments, I think, to make it as broad as is necessary but as narrow as we can and still be functional, and I’m not leaving the session without some relief for my constituents. So, they came to me and asked me to provide some relief, and I told them I would, and as their state senator, that’s my job.”
Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, the Senate president pro tempore, said he doesn’t “see a tremendous groundswell of support for it.”
“While policy-wise, many people may agree with it, there’s also the duty we have to respect the will of the voters,” he said.
Hendren said many legislators did not agree with voters’ decision in 2017 to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, but they worked to implement it. He said he would “tend to fall more on that side that if we want to change it, we probably need to go back to the voters and make our case.”
“I never say something doesn’t have a chance because again, when you’ve got something that people believe in as good policy, it complicates the dynamic,” he said. “But I would say in my opinion, it has an uphill climb because it’s hard to give a good explanation for why we would overturn – immediately overturn – the will of the voters.”
A senator on the all-Republican Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, where the bill was referred, said in a text he was “not for it and almost none are. Maybe for a very limited portion if able to justify easily.” He later said in an interview that while almost no senators are for the bill, their opposition was based on it being in its “current form.”
Ballinger said he understands that Arkansans voted for the measure. With a two-thirds vote, the Legislature could do away with it, but he supports only expanding exemptions. He said the $11 rate would be the “highest effective minimum wage in the country” when cost of living is considered.
Asked if he has the votes he needs to pass the measure, Ballinger said, “Well, I don’t know. It depends. But I don’t need the votes right now. I need the votes when I run it. And so I’ll have the votes or be real close to it when I run it.”
Ballinger said the wage increases are hurting small businesses, ministries and nonprofits.
“You give us another year or two down the road, and people are going to be asking us why didn’t we do something to help,” he said. “This is going to be crushing. This is going to be devastating to some individuals. And so I’m not leaving here without trying to help provide some sort of relief.”
Hutchinson’s spokesperson, J.R. Davis, said the governor does not yet have an opinion regarding the bill.