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Minimum wage discussion draws full house at City Hall

BEMIDJI — A large crowd assembled Thursday afternoon at Bemidji City Hall to put in their two cents regarding the wages Minnesota workers receive. 

The meeting was intended to give area workers a forum to talk about their experience in the Bemidji work force generally. However, a large part of the discussion wound up being about the legislation working its way through the State Capitol that would raise Minnesota’s minimum wage.

Earlier this year, a bill sponsored by DFLer Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley passed in the Minnesota House of Representatives that would raise the state’s minimum wage incrementally to $9.50 an hour by 2015 for large employers and $8.50 an hour for small ones.

That bill still has to be reconciled with a Senate bill that raised the minimum wage to just $7.75 an hour. Minnesota Public Radio reported in May that Gov. Mark Dayton favors an increase closer to the House version.

Winkler and fellow members of the Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs were at the forum as part of a statewide tour to talk about the status of workers generally, but they didn’t shy away from talking about the potential wage hike.

Winkler declined to speculate on where the final increase will be after negotiations, but he said a lower final wage increase would mean a lesser chance of any increase becoming law.

“The lower the number we negotiate, the less likely we are to have a minimum wage increase next year,” he said after the meeting. 

Several CEOs and other Bemidji area white-collar workers present at the meeting were not pleased at the prospect of a law that, in their view, would cut into profit margins and make it harder for them to hire more workers.

Mitch Rautio, owner of Keg n’ Cork, said an increase would hurt small business.

“With the increase in the minimum wage… you are going to take a lot of the small mom-and-pop shops that operate on such tight margins that you would put a lot of them out of business,” he said. “You’ll take some of the character out of northern Minnesota… affect tourism. Why would you travel to northern Minnesota if there’s none of those fun little places anymore?”

Winkler responded by saying there’s decades’ worth of evidence indicating the impact in employment that initially happens when the minimum wage is raised, goes away given time.

“If we had kept up with inflation since the late ’50s, the minimum wage would be $11.50 an hour today,” Winkler said. “The experience that we have nationally and in Minnesota with raising the minimum wage is … that disruption in employment that you’re talking about will bear out eventually,” he said.

The discussion on how to improve the earning situation for Minnesotans didn’t revolve solely around the potential minimum wage hike.

Eli Hunt with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe brought up the MEED program, which subsidized businesses that hired low-income Minnesotans during the 1980s.

“I thought it was a great program,” he said.

Alan Brew, a retired BSU anthropology professor, recommended raising taxes on high-income earners as a broader solution for income inequality. Taxes for higher earners have fallen substantially in the decades since the Great Depression, Brew said.

“You saw those statistics about how the upper (income) people are doing so much better — that’s why,” he said.

Winkler said Brew was the first person to bring up the idea of raising taxes on higher earners during the Committee’s tour. 

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
(218) 333-9791
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