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True Test For Minimum Wage Will Be On Senate Floor

Wallis Watkins
Senator Troy Carter (D-New Orleans) presented SB 155 to the Senate Labor committee Thursday, April 25.

The Senate Labor committee advanced a constitutional amendment Thursday that would ask voters to increase the minimum wage in Louisiana, something lawmakers have been unwilling to do.

“In the highest spirit of democracy, what this bill asks you to do is give the people of Louisiana an opportunity to vote on it.”

If approved by the Legislature and voters, Senator Troy Carter’s (D-New Orleans) bill—backed by Governor John Bel Edwards—would set the minimum wage at $9 an hour starting July 2020. 

Louisiana is one of five states in the U.S. without a minimum wage of its own.  Instead, the state uses the federal rate, currently $7.25 an hour.

Ochsner Health Systems supports the move. The state's largest non-profit health care system increased their employees’ minimum hourly pay by nearly $4 earlier this year. Warner Thomas, President and CEO, says business hasn’t taken a hit as a result.

"What we’ve found since we’ve raised minimum wage ," Thomas told members of the committee, "engagement has improved, service has improved, retention of our employees has improved.”

Dawn Starns, state director of Louisiana’s chapter of National Federation of Independent Business, says the 4,000 small-business owners she represents don’t have the means of companies like Ochsner to be able to afford higher wages. Mandating an increased minimum wage, she says, would lead to job losses.

“We believe that philosophically the markets should dictate the wages,” said Starns.

This is the fourth time Governor Edwards has pushed a minimum wage bill, but it’s the first time he’s asked the Legislature to let voters decide. Doing so will require two-thirds of lawmakers to approve putting the measure on the ballot, no easy feat. Previous failed attempts required support from only a simple majority of the Legislature.

Edwards was scheduled to speak on behalf of the bill in the Senate committee.  Instead, the Governor traveled to Ruston, LA, after a tornado hit the town Thursday morning. 

Edwards released a statement later in the day thanking members for their approval of the bill, saying "in 2019, $7.25 is not a livable wage. Sen. Carter’s bill will give a modest but meaningful increase to $9, which is something the people of Louisiana deserve to be able to vote on."

Recent polls suggest a strong appetite across the state for an increased minimum wage.  According to a 2019 survey from LSU, 81 percent of Louisiana voters support raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor, where similar legislation died last year.