Other states choose sovereignty, but not here in Mississippi

Published 10:28 am Tuesday, January 17, 2017

By Charlie Mitchell

For decades, Congress has inched onto lawmaking turf that once belonged to states. When it comes to establishing a minimum wage, the trend has reversed. More and more states are setting their own wage floor. Legislation to do so in Mississippi has been filed again this year, but prospects aren’t good.

Scholars agree that the playbook for America (the Constitution) was written to give states muscle. The federal government was to fill in the gaps.

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That isn’t how things worked out. The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, among other developments, took issues off the plates of the reluctant states and into the lap of the national government.

Congress discovered the power of the purse, too. As D.C. became the fountain of funding, strings were attached legislation. States have set speed limits, voting ages, drinking ages under threat that the federal tap would be closed. Because Congress funds all of Medicare and most of Medicaid, Congress writes the rules. Same for environmental matters, K-12 education … you name it.

Well, enough history. Or almost enough.

Congress did set the first minimum wage in the United States. The year was 1938. Congress was trying to wrest the nation from the devastation of the Great Depression. The initial Fair Labor Standards Act said no worker anywhere could be paid no less than 25 cents per hour.

Once the FLSA was upheld, it became the norm for Congress to have the authority — coast to coast — to tell employers the base wage to pay — regardless of regional differences in cost of living, job availability or other factors. Some said this was good. Others said a national minimum was arbitrary, even harmful.

Nonetheless, once Congress got into the business it became almost routine. The federal minimum was increased 22 times, most recently eight years ago to $7.25 per hour.

Congressional inaction has led states increasingly to step up. In fact, this year workers earning base pay in 21 states will see increases.

Several states enact multi-year laws, so some increases are very small. Alaska, for example, moves up 5 cents per hour to $9.80. That’s only $2 per week or, on an annual basis, $104. That’s not much.

Increases are more dramatic in other states. Arizona’s increase appears to be the largest, jumping $1.95 per hour to $10. That means a $4,064 raise, translating to $20,800 in annual compensation for a minimum wage worker in that state.

It should be noted state wage legislation is not limited to those wacky blue states on the edges of America. Southern states, which previously deferred to the private sector to make its own rules, have increasingly joined the parade. Included are Arkansas ($8.50), Florida ($8.10) and Missouri ($7.90).

Some states — Missouri is an example — are only slightly above the federal minimum. California is on a path toward $15. Oregon and others will start indexing annual increases to the Consumer Price Index. New York and others have different scales based on locality within the state and the size of an employer’s workforce.

It’s Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who again filed legislation to remove Mississippi from the list of five states — just five — with no minimum wage law of any type.

Baria’s bill would set a minimum of $9 per hour for private employers. Interestingly, and perhaps to make it more palatable to his colleagues, Baria’s bill would not apply to state workers. (That’s really strange when you think about it in terms of federalism. Mississippi would let Congress decide how much people on the public payroll would be paid.)

Anyway, this may be the last you read about a minimum wage law for this state. House Speaker Philip Gunn is on record saying the free market should decide wages. If last year’s pattern is repeated — only bills favored by the leadership made it to the floor — Baria’s bill will disappear.

The one chance is for lawmakers to realize the more workers make, the more taxes the state collects. But even that will not likely be enough.

Again, the history and effect of a government-set minimum wage is debatable. What is beyond debate is that more and more states are deciding Congress doesn’t always know what’s best. On the topic of worker pay, they’re saying, “We’ll handle it.”

And it’s certainly interesting that Mississippi, where the concept of state sovereignty as ordained in the U.S. Constitution is considered sacred, will shrug. Other states are deciding what’s best for their economy, their workers. The Mississippi Legislature keeps leaving it up to Congress.

CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.