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Why some lawmakers think this will be the year Pa. raises its minimum wage

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.
Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

Updated, Tuesday 4:30 p.m.: In a party-line vote, Democrats on the Pennsylvania House Labor and Industy Committee passed a bill that would increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026, tying future increases to the rate of inflation. It could come up for a final vote as soon as next week.

Original story

HARRISBURG — After years of arguments and a near-deal in 2019, Democrats in the Pennsylvania legislature say it’s now just a matter of time before Republicans agree to vote in favor of raising the state’s minimum wage.

At the moment, Pennsylvania’s wage floor is $7.25 an hour — the same as the federal minimum. The legislature last increased the state’s minimum wage in 2006, and every neighboring state currently has a higher wage floor.

“I think we’re all tired of fighting on this,” said state Rep. Patty Kim (D., Dauphin), who for years has introduced legislation to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage.

Democrats’ newfound optimism is based on the fact that a Republican who is a member of the state Senate’s leadership team is the lead sponsor of a bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Yearly increases tied to the rate of inflation would follow under the legislation.

“Due to the rising costs, workers are unable to pay for basic necessities and forced to rely on public assistance,” the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie), said in a statement in late May. “It is time we address the issue and I believe this bill is the most responsible way to approach it.”

The state House is under Democratic control, and there are likely enough votes in the chamber to approve a minimum wage increase. The state Senate, meanwhile, is strongly under GOP control.

Still, state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) is hopeful something will be done by the end of the year.

“… It’s just a function of figuring out the dynamics of what it’s going to look like,” he said.

Republican leadership in both chambers has been wary of raising the minimum wage.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) and Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) voted against raising the wage floor to $9.50 an hour in 2019. That year, the state Senate passed a compromise bill negotiated between Republicans and former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf; it died in the state House.

In an email earlier this spring, Kate Flessner, a state Senate GOP spokesperson, said the caucus is “focused on implementing policies that will create maximum wage jobs” rather than through “artificial minimum wage increases.”

Added Ward last week: “Everything is a negotiation.”

Even if the chambers reach a deal, it’s unlikely the bill will include language allowing Pennsylvania’s cities, such as Philadelphia, to set a higher, local minimum wage. The 2006 bill that last increased the minimum wage included a ban on local action.

Getting rid of that ban is a high priority for dozens of progressive community and advocacy groups.

Preemption “is often used as a tool for state governments to prevent big cities with majority Black and brown residents from governing as they see fit,” the coalition said in an open letter in May. “This model should be rejected by Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.”

State House Democrats have expressed support for local control, but they doubt it’s actually in the cards.

“I don’t believe that will happen,” said state Rep. Jason Dawkins (D., Philadelphia), who chairs his chamber’s Labor and Industry Committee.

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