An Arkansas state senator said changes are needed to the minimum wage increases voters overwhelmingly approved in November. Critics of the bill are crying foul, saying the proposal goes against the will of the voters.
“There's some people out there who are willing to work for less so that they have a shot at a job,” said state senator Bob Ballinger (R – Berryville), who moved across the capitol after three terms as a representative. “I want those jobs to be there.”
The new law went on the books after Issue 5 won support of 68.5% of voters. It gradually raises pay to $11.00 an hour over three years. Ballinger, who opposed the proposal, says it brings unforeseen consequences for small businesses.
“Voters didn't want to vote to shut down mom and pops,” Ballinger said. “That wasn't their plan. They wanted to try to have a living wage and I want everybody to have a living wage.”
Ballinger predicts an unemployment crisis if Senate Bill 115 doesn’t pass.
It would carve out exceptions to the prevailing wage, including for workers under 18, businesses with fewer than 50 employees, non-profits and religious ministries. Employers would have to stay above the federal minimum wage.
Ballinger singles out “second chance employers,” who hire people getting out of prison or recovery. He said those employers can’t afford to take chances when the wages are set that high. He also says small town schools can use it to save on staffing.
“I spoke with a superintendent who says ‘I've got three custodians right now. I'm going to have to fire two in order to try and find a way to make this work,’” the former school teacher and practicing attorney said.
But critics question those calculations.
“I can't believe that the school district can't find [the money],” said David Couch, who wrote the minimum wage law and led the petition drive for Arkansans for A Fair Wage “They’ve got three custodians? Ninety dollars a week? I can't believe that the school district can't afford a hundred dollars a week for three custodians. This is just senator Ballinger and the chamber of commerce trying to do away with the will of the people of the state of Arkansas”
“If we don't stay in step with the minimum wage then those people are likely going to look elsewhere,” said state representative Tippi McCullough (D – Little Rock), who was also a teacher before running for office. “They need money to support their families.”
But Ballinger says his bill would not take away the raises that kicked in at the start of the year. He says it puts caps on what the law offers and expects most employers who already handed out raises to hold to them.
“A lot of people want to act like we're rolling back the minimum wage increase, and that's not it,” Ballinger said. “All we're doing is providing some places for people to still go to work.”
Because voters put the increase in place, lawmakers usually need super-majorities in both chambers to make changes, but with Republicans in control, Ballinger thinks he can get that and says he wants that to help fend off his critics.
Governor Asa Hutchinson is reviewing the proposal and has no comment for now.