A group called Give Arkansas A Raise Now is proposing a ballot measure to raise the state’s minimum wage from $6.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour over a two-year period.
Stephen Copley of North Little Rock, the organization’s chairman, said it filed its proposed initiated act with Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s office Tuesday. The group is seeking McDaniel’s approval for its ballot title and popular name so it can begin collecting at least 62,507 registered voters’ signatures by July 7 to qualify it for the 2014 general election ballot.
If the group qualifies its proposal for the ballot and voters approve it, it would increase the state’s minimum wage from $6.25 to $7.50 on Jan. 1, 2015; to $8 on Jan. 1, 2016; and to $8.50 on Jan. 1, 2017, he said.
“This is an important issue to so many people in Arkansas. People who work hard every day. They play by the rules and somehow they still continue to fall behind,” Copley said at a news conference in the state Capitol.
The state’s minimum wage was last increased in 2006 from $5.15 to $6.25 an hour, and it’s time for the minimum wage to be raised because “right now folks are [living] on about $15,000 a year and just can’t make ends meet,” Copley said.
Copley, a United Methodist minister and political activist, said Give Arkansas A Raise Now primarily will use paid signature-gatherers, but also volunteers, to get registered voters to sign its petition. He said the group expects its signature gathering will cost between $250,000 to $300,000.
He said he’s “pretty confident” that the group will collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Give Arkansas A Raise Now filed as a ballot question committee Tuesday with the state Ethics Commission.
Beyond Copley, the group listed Mike Watts of Little Rock as its treasurer and about 20 members who include Arkansas AFL-CIO President Alan Hughes, NAACP Arkansas chapter President Dale Charles, attorney David Couch of Little Rock, former Rep. Kathy Webb, D-Little Rock, former Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien and Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association Chief Executive Officer Matthew Hass.
State Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, said the 1967 Legislature enacted the state’s first minimum wage when Republican Winthrop Rockefeller was governor, and the Legislature increased the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.25 an hour in a 2006 special session called by Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, after a petition drive was started to raise the minimum wage through a constitutional amendment.
The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since July 2009, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
The state and federal minimum wages both cover the vast majority of workers in Arkansas, who are paid at whichever rate is higher, said Denise Oxley, general counsel for the state Department of Labor.
In 2009, Nickels said he filed a bill to increase the state minimum wage from $6.25 to $7.25 so it equaled the federal minimum wage, but it failed to clear the state Senate after the House of Representatives approved it.
Nickels said Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, filed legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage earlier this year, but it failed to clear the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
Nickels said two Republican governors signed minimum wage legislation in Arkansas and “so in that context I think it is nonpartisan.”
“Does that environment exist today?” he said. “ That’s a good question.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson of Rogers, a former 3rd District congressman, said in a written statement that he doesn’t support the proposed initiated act’s minimum wage increase, but “I do believe the minimum wage needs to be increased, and it should be considered when the General Assembly meets again. The amount of the increase should be based upon economic factors.”
State Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, who is also a candidate for governor, said she would like to see an increase in the state’s minimum wage, but “this proposal is not the solution.”
“This aggressive plan could force employers to hire fewer people. A significant increase in wages brings additional costs through payroll taxes, etc.,” she said in a written statement.
Republican candidate Curtis Coleman of Little Rock, a businessman, said in a written statement that “increased government regulation and interference only depress our economy,” and the best way to increase Arkansans’ income is to create an environment for a vibrant Arkansas economy. He said he opposes the proposed initiated act.
A spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross of Little Rock,the state’s former 4th District congressman, said Ross consistently voted to increase the minimum wage to support Arkansas’ working families while in Congress.
“However, as many different issues try to get on the 2014 ballot, Mike Ross will carefully review each measure once it is certified and placed on the ballot,” Ross spokesman Brad Howard said.