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It's the minimum lawmakers can do ...

Those who earn the least deserve a raise, but not one with automatic increases.

April 11, 2006|Abel Maldonado | ABEL MALDONADO is a Republican state senator from Santa Maria.

I KNOW FIRSTHAND how the minimum wage affects California's low-wage earners and small-business employers. As a young man, I worked long hours in the strawberry fields alongside my father, who also worked for minimum wage. My mother and father understood the daily struggle of providing the necessities for their children while earning only the lowest allowable wage.

Later on, through years of hard work, faith and perseverance, my parents turned a half-acre strawberry farm into a 6,000-acre family business that today employs more than 200 people and ships produce around the world. To this day they have not forgotten their roots or the times when our family went without, and you can be sure they have instilled this appreciation into my siblings and me.

Who are California's 1.65 million minimum-wage earners?

They are predominantly adults, mostly female, and 64% are working at least 40 hours a week. Since 2002, the purchasing power of minimum-wage earners has dropped by more than 11%. Yet, during the same time, California's economy has grown by an average of 4% and has added roughly half a million new jobs. The recent bipartisan workers' compensation reforms passed by the Legislature also reduced premium costs to small businesses by about 35%, while the governor's action in 2003 to slash vehicle license fees is returning $4 billion annually to California's motorists.

Now is the time to give a needed hand to California's minimum-wage earners, many of whom work long hours at the kind of backbreaking jobs the rest of us would like to avoid.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also believes the time is right. In January, he told the Legislature that he would immediately sign legislation to increase the minimum wage by $1 an hour, beginning with a 50-cent increase this year and another 50-cent increase next year. That legislation is contained in Senate Bill 1167, which I introduced at the governor's request.

Sadly, the state Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations late last month wasted a perfect opportunity to make the minimum-wage increase a reality this year for California's minimum-wage earners. Rather than quickly moving SB 1167 forward, the committee's Democrats chose to advance an alternative minimum-wage-hike bill that is badly flawed and has no chance of being enacted into law.

The bill the Democrats sent to the governor would have indexed the minimum wage to the inflation rate, so that it would go up automatically along with the cost of living, beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

That is unwise. Autopilot spending increases in state government is one of the reasons the Legislature grapples with multibillion-dollar state budget shortfalls almost every year.

Similarly, placing future autopilot wage increases on the backs of businesses -- especially small, family-run businesses -- is fiscally unsound for California's economy.

Which is exactly why the governor vetoed the minimum-wage hike/indexing bill he received from the Legislature last year, saying that indexing "fails to account for changes in the economy which could have deleterious effects on the economic health of the state." Now the Legislature wants to send him another bill with the same provisions. It's pure political posturing.

More pragmatic Democrats recognize the dangers involved in playing games with the minimum-wage issue. Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, a respected Democratic legislator from the Central Valley, recently stated that "the governor will not sign a minimum-wage increase with indexing, so anything with indexing in it is sort of irrelevant.... Who loses? The people who get minimum wage."

There are 380,000 minimum-wage earners in the Los Angles region alone today. They need real money in their pockets, not a flawed indexing scheme motivated by election-year politics that would not go into effect for another 2 1/2 years.

The Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations has until April 28 to move SB 1167 forward.

I hope committee members realize that doing the "strategic" thing is not necessarily the same as doing what is right.

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