The Politics of the Minimum Wage

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The House Business & Industry Committee is meeting as I write this, and plans to consider a number of bills calling for Texas to raise the minimum wage. While not the hottest debate of the week, or even of the day, it’s a serious issue and I’m glad the committee is taking it up. I wish the entire Lege would give the idea a chance. In my view, a higher minimum wage would be good for Texas–and although any state considering such an idea should be prudent about potential unintended consequences, Texas specifically is well-hedged against the most obvious risks.

I laid out my reasoning in 2013, and the Texas-specific considerations laid out two years ago haven’t changed. But shortly after I wrote that piece, Barack Obama, in his 2014 State of the Union, called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The issue thereby became more visible and although Congress did not heed the president’s call, a number of states did, and later that year several of them approved higher state minimum wages. (Barring a higher state wage, the federal minimum applies; this is the case in about half the states, including Texas.) So I would like to add a comment about the politics: despite appearances, this isn’t a partisan issue.

It’s true that Obama, a Democrat, championed the issue in 2014. The action since then, including in Texas, has been led by Democrats; Wendy Davis briefly raised the issue during her gubernatorial campaign last year, and the bills being heard in committee today were all filed by Democrats. Democrats have, in a sense, claimed ownership of the issue; after their sweeping losses in last year’s national elections, a number of Democrats took consolation in the fact that voters in four red states had approved referendums raising the minimum wage—this was evidence, in their view, of widespread support for the Democratic agenda.

I don’t begrudge Democrats for spinning it that way. Republicans have no one to blame but themselves, because they could and should have taken up the issue. The last president to raise the minimum wage was George W. Bush, and although he wasn’t unusually fiscally conservative, there are fiscal conservatives, like me, who have advocated for a higher minimum wage on both economic and moral grounds. Poverty is inefficient. And if someone is working full-time, they shouldn’t be poor. There are also conservatives who object to raising the minimum wage on philosophical grounds or who are leery of potentially adverse effects on employers. I think the former objection is good for college debates and Texas is well-hedged against the latter risks for reasons I described in the 2013 piece. But more importantly, having had this debate a number of times since 2013, I’ve found a lot of Republicans, even Tea Party conservatives, are receptive to the idea. As Gary Polland of Houston’s Red, White, and Blue put it, it’s not a left versus right issue; it’s a business versus labor issue. And despite the vaguely leftist connotations of “labor”, we’re not talking about teacher’s unions in this context. We’re talking about Texans, with jobs, who are apparently trying to be self-sufficient; the proposal concerns wages, not welfare. Conservatives can support that, obviously; that’s why the aforementioned minimum wage referendums were approved in four red states.

Texans, I suspect, would do the same, especially if the Lege asked them to consider a proposal that was tailored to mitigate risk (by exempting small employers, for example). So I commend Texas Democrats for raising the issue. But let’s not rule out the possibility that some Republicans might join them; they would need such support to pass any of these bills, and they might be able to find it.

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