Whether workers should be paid a higher minimum wage is an issue that has played out across North Carolina and around the country this year and has emerged as a key difference between Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger Thom Tillis.
Hagan favors increasing the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in steps up to $10.10 an hour. Tillis opposes it, saying raising it higher should be left up to state legislators.
Tillis has steadfastly refused to go a step farther and say what North Carolina – where he has led the House of Representatives since 2011 – should do. It’s a line he hasn’t been willing to cross since becoming a candidate in February.
The question has gone unanswered through last week’s televised U.S. Senate debate, when moderator Norah O’Donnell pressed him to say if North Carolina’s $7.25 an hour was enough. Tillis’ campaign declined to make him available for an interview on the issue this week.
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“Some people might argue he’s punting on the issue,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “I’m sure Democrats are saying, ‘You were in control of the House for four years, you could have supported it there.’ They might use that line of thought to conclude that he’s actually against raising the minimum wage.”
A bill that would have tied the wage to annual increases in the cost of living was introduced in the recent legislative session but Tillis never moved it out of committee for a vote. Similar bills, introduced when Democrats controlled the legislature, also languished.
In 2010, Tillis indicated on a N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation candidates’ questionnaire that he didn’t think the General Assembly should raise the minimum wage in North Carolina. This year’s survey only asked whether the federal wage should be raised. Tillis indicated he didn’t support that – “Not at this time,” he wrote, citing a Congressional Budget Office estimate that it could cost as many as 500,000 jobs.
Plays to Democratic base
The issue has been in the forefront since President Barack Obama in December said the challenge to close the income inequality gap was “the defining issue of our time.” The Democratic -controlled U.S. Senate took up the cause in April but fell six votes short of what was needed to keep the bill alive. It’s possible but unlikely the Senate will take the bill up again during its current brief return to Washington.
In 2014, 34 states considered bills increasing their minimum wages, and 11 enacted increases; 23 states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages than the federal standard, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. All states must pay at least the federal minimum.
In North Carolina, a Public Policy Polling survey last month found 56 percent of likely voters supported a $10 an hour minimum, 37 percent opposed and 7 percent weren’t sure. Recently, fast-food workers were arrested in North Carolina as part of a national protest demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Minimum-wage earners are disproportionately women and younger people and part of the traditional Democratic base of support. So campaigns like Hagan’s emphasize their support for hiking the wage at every opportunity.
“The more that Tillis has to explain his position, or try to avoid specifics about the issue, only gives the Hagan campaign and Democrats continued fodder for ads and talking points,” said Michael Bitzer, politics and history professor and provost at Catawba College.
Bad for small business?
Both candidates are tackling the issue head-on as they begin to make public appearances ahead of the Nov. 4 election.
On a tour of farms in Wilson County last weekend, Tillis reiterated that some business owners he has talked to say they would have to lay off employees if the minimum wage went up, particularly companies that are just barely hanging on.
“You have no choice: You have to reduce your costs or you go out of business, and everybody loses their job,” Tillis said.
“If you would just have the people in Washington recognize that this is the states’ responsibility, think about how much more capacity you would have to solve the problems the federal government should be focused on,” Tillis said. “I’d much rather have us deal with that down at the legislature than me, if I go to Washington.”
It’s a point he’s been making since his first appearance on national TV after winning the GOP nomination in May. That’s when he told MSNBC host Chuck Todd that making the minimum wage for someone in the North Carolina mountains the same as someone in Boston “makes no sense to me.”
On Friday, speaking at a labor convention in Raleigh, Hagan launched a comeback to Tillis’ May remark.
“He even said this on TV: He said workers in Boston should make more money than workers in Western North Carolina,” Hagan said. “Well, I will never put Boston over Boone, and this is what Speaker Tillis has done.”
Hagan drew enthusiastic ovations from the 200 delegates at the AFL-CIO convention when she said she supported hiking the federal minimum wage. In a brief interview afterward, she said she didn’t agree that raising pay would put people out of work and threaten small businesses.
“If you look, historically that argument’s been used every time the minimum wage has been increased,” Hagan said. “I think it’s been refuted. It really gives people more funds to spend to buy, and to help grow those small businesses,” she said. “Small business really is the backbone of the economy in North Carolina. I want to support small business in each and every way.”
Tillis wasn’t invited to the union event, since it was Hagan the AFL-CIO endorsed.
In previous remarks, Tillis has presented the idea that the state should aspire to more than a minimum-wage economy. Under Hagan, he said in answering O’Donnell’s debate question, higher health care and energy costs would ensure $7.25 an hour wouldn’t be enough for North Carolina workers.
“I want to create an economy where minimum wage is a very brief stepping stone to higher-paying jobs so people can realize their dreams,” Tillis said.