Voters favor effort to raise minimum pay in Arkansas

Issue 5 will set state’s floor at $11 an hour by 2021

Arkansas voters approved a measure Tuesday to raise the state's minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2021. Issue 5 lifts what already is the highest base rate of pay for workers in the region comprising Arkansas and its six neighboring states.

Voters appeared to embrace the arguments made by Issue 5 supporting committee Arkansans for a Fair Wage, which contended that a pay increase could better the standard of living for thousands of families statewide while boosting consumer demand.

With 2,298 of 2,607 precincts reporting, the incomplete, unofficial returns were:

For 582,509

Against 268,895

Arkansans for a Fair Wage campaign manager Kristin Foster emphasized the effect the group expected the measure to have on poverty and food insecurity in Arkansas. "For working parents, this is going to have a huge impact on their ability to put food on the table," she said.

She said the result reflected the group's polling and the needs expressed by workers across the state.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Executive Director Rich Huddleston, whose organization released a study projecting Issue 5's impact, hailed the result's benefits for close to 155,000 Arkansas children who he said have a parent who will soon get a raise.

In a phone interview earlier Tuesday, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Zook, who led opposition group Arkansans for a Strong Economy, said he anticipated the measure's approval could hurt the state's job seekers.

Through a spokesman, Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed concerns about the measure's "potential negative impact on our economy and small businesses" but said he respected the will of the people.

Under the initiative, the first wage increase is set for January 1, when workers will get a raise to $9.25 per hour from the current minimum wage of $8.50.

The measure survived legal challenges that centered on questions about the signatures Arkansans for a Fair Wage had gathered to petition for its inclusion on the ballot.

In July, Republican Secretary of State Mark Martin's office notified the committee that after reviews, 17,289 of the originally submitted 69,413 signatures were invalid, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. This triggered a 30-day "cure" period in which the group was allowed to gather and submit additional signatures, which it filed on Aug. 3.

Arkansans for a Strong Economy then challenged the validity of the secretary of state's determination in court, arguing that the initial number of signatures submitted did not meet the threshold required for a "cure" period and that the secretary of state should be barred from counting votes for the measure.

But after a signature count by a court-appointed special master, the seven-member Arkansas Supreme Court ruled against that claim on Oct. 18, ensuring that Issue 5 would be decided by voters.

Proponents of the measure argued for its potential benefits to working families. They cited to a rising cost of living that they said burdens even full-time, minimum-wage workers, who earn less than $18,000 per year, and to the roughly 300,000 Arkansans who would get raises under the measure.

Issue 5 opponents said the initiative would hobble industry and erode the job growth the state has enjoyed in recent years. Younger and low-skilled workers would pay the price, detractors said, as business owners looked for ways to trim labor costs.

Arkansas last raised its minimum wage in 2014, also through a ballot measure, lifting the wage from $6.25 to $8.50 an hour over a three-year period. (Act 643 of 2017 prevents Arkansas cities and counties from raising their minimum wage above the state minimum wage.)

[2018 ELECTION: Full Democrat-Gazette coverage of Arkansas races]

On Tuesday, neighboring Missouri approved a ballot initiative to raise that state's mandated minimum wage from $7.85 to $8.60 an hour in 2019 and gradually to $12 an hour by 2023.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have state minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Washington, D.C., and the state of Washington, with minimum wages of $13.50 and $11.50, respectively, currently have the nation's highest minimum wages, though many increases are scheduled around the country at the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019.

Nationwide, discussions of the minimum wage have popped up with increasing frequency in political discourse, with a few prominent Democrats calling for a $15 federal minimum wage. That rate has not increased since 2009.

This year, several high-profile companies, including Amazon, Walmart, Costco and others, have made headlines with announcements about minimum wage increases for their workers.

Metro on 11/07/2018