Increasing Florida's minimum wage would not only help families rise out of poverty but boost the overall economy, Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday.
It is unlikely their proposal to boost the minimum hourly wage about 27 percent will get much traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, especially over objections from the business community. But Florida Democrats are aligning with a progressive cause that has become a national conversation.
Noting that Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a "war on poverty," Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said raising the minimum wage was imperative to "closing what has been a growing income inequality gap."
The proposals -- Senate Bill 456 and House Bill 385 -- would increase Florida's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for all workers. Congressional Democrats, with the backing of President Barack Obama, are pushing for the federal minimum wage to be increased to the same amount.
The minimum wage in Florida is currently $7.93 an hour and $4.91 for employees who are tipped. That includes a 14-cent increase that went into affect on Jan. 1, the result of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2004 that required automatic cost-of-living adjustments.
Count Gov. Rick Scott among those who are dubious about the Democrats' proposal.
"When I hear a politician say that we have to raise the minimum wage so working families can make ends meet, I cringe, because I know that statement is a lie," Scott said via email. "Even if we did raise the minimum wage, working families will still not be able to make ends meet on those jobs. We need good jobs that lead to good careers for our families and that's what I am focused on."
Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, is sponsoring the legislation in the House. She said raising the minimum wage would help not only families but businesses, too. "When people are making more, they will spend more," she said.
Employers have argued that raising the minimum wage increases costs and creates unnecessary burdens. The Florida Chamber of Commerce is against the proposal, saying that the focus should be on ensuring workers are skilled enough to earn promotions and higher wages.
"Small businesses and private employers should decide what benefits they’re able to pay and offer," Chamber spokswoman Edie Ousley said. "Government shouldn't tell people who to hire, what to pay them and what benefits to offer." A spokewoman for Senate President Don Gaetz said he has not taken a public position on raising the minimum wage. Like House Speaker Will Weatherford, Gaetz referred the bill to three committee. It will be up to those three chairmen to decide if the bill warrants debate and a vote, spokeswoman Katie Betta said.
If the Florida Democrats' proposal were to become law, even tipped workers like waiters would be guaranteed $10.10 an hour, equivalent to a salary of roughly $21,000 a year. But that's a long shot. Bullard said he hopes the conversation begins this year even if a different route is ultimately pursued, such as another constitutional amendment.
Florida is among a handful of states that have automatic adjustments built into the minimum wage (click here for a useful U.S. Department of Labor map). But some states and cities have approved larger boosts like the one being pushed by Democratic lawmakers.
Voters in New Jersey backed a constitutional amendment in November that raised the minimum wage $1 an hour to $8.25 and required future increases tied to inflation. In September, California voters approved raising the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016.
In SeaTac, Wash. -- home of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport -- voters approved increasing the minimum wage from $10.88 to $15 an hour. However, there was a recent setback when a court sided with airlines and restaurants to rule the measure only applies to employees at businesses around the airport, but not the bulk of workers inside. Washington state's minimum wage is $9.32 an hour.