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California and the West

Assembly Panel OKs 2 Bills to Raise Minimum Wage

Legislature: Wilson promises to veto the measures. Democrats hope to create an election-year issue.

April 23, 1998|MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A state Assembly committee dominated by Democrats approved two bills Wednesday that would raise California's minimum wage for the fifth time in a year and a half.

The increase, proposed for next March, would put the hourly minimum at either $6.50 or $6.75. That would be 75 cents to a dollar higher than the current minimum wage, but still would leave a family of three with income below the federal poverty line, backers said.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson will veto both bills if they are approved by the Legislature, his spokesman said, in part because the state's small businesses are still adjusting to the last increase, which took effect last month.

Although Democrats would like to see the minimum wage raised again, the bills also provide them with election-year ammunition against Republicans.

The strategy is to portray Democrats on the side of a popular issue and to give organized labor a chance to share the limelight "while it is fighting for its very life," said a Capitol aide closely following the issue.

Unions have been campaigning nonstop against Proposition 226, on the June ballot, which would hamper their ability to spend member dues to support political causes.

Although unions do not represent minimum-wage workers, among those testifying for the legislation Wednesday was Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO.

Citing the millions of dollars paid to some bank presidents, Rankin said: "We need to deal with the increasing disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom."

Some of the people who testified against the increase acknowledged that doing so was similar to being against "motherhood and apple pie," in the words of Robin Black, who represented the state Department of Industrial Relations.

But she said there were "good reasons" for leaving the minimum wage at its current level of $5.75 an hour, which she said still leaves a single person "well above" poverty.

The Assembly Labor and Employment Committee voted 6 to 1 to approve the $6.50-per-hour bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Elaine White Alquist (D-Santa Clara), and 7 to 0 to approve the $6.75-per-hour bill introduced by Democrat Dick Floyd of Wilmington, the committee's chairman.

Alquist, who represents part of affluent Silicon Valley, said the need for a higher minimum wage is particularly acute in areas where high prices hurt low-income workers.

Alquist's bill is the one preferred by the Democratic leadership, Capitol aides said.

Under her bill, 1 million Californians would be added to the minimum wage ranks--up from the 1.5 million receiving the current minimum wage, analysts said.

Echoing those who spoke against the bill before the labor committee, Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh said: "While the economy is growing at a healthy pace, it's important to absorb the current increase and assess its impact on small business."

Walsh said Democrats in part are pushing the bills to place Wilson in an unpopular position with his opposition.

He said a higher minimum wage only makes it harder for poorly educated and unskilled workers to find a job.

"You don't want a dynamic in place that leaves under-educated kids" at a disadvantage in the job market.

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