By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — If Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke defeats Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday, she’ll owe a tremendous amount of thanks to a union group fighting for an increase in the state minimum wage.
But some political and legal experts say there’s no guarantee Wisconsin will see a higher minimum wage if Burke is elected.
Although Burke has said she supports raising the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 in three steps, Wisconsin’s governor generally can only authorize a pay hike if the Legislature first signs off by passing a bill, according to Marquette University political science professor John McAdams.
But the Legislature, under a Republican majority for the past several years, hasn’t been receptive to overtures about increasing the minimum wage. The GOP is expected to keep control of the Assembly and Senate after Tuesday’s election.
“Unless the Democrats take the Assembly and the Senate and Burke wins the governorship … the state is not going to have a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum wage,” McAdams told Wisconsin Reporter.
But Wisconsin Jobs Now, which has received at least $2.5 million from Service Employees International Union organizations since 2011, is trying to skirt the Legislature by claiming the Walker administration is violating a 1913 state law that requires the minimum wage to be “not less than a living wage.”
Wisconsin Jobs Now and three low-wage workers filed a lawsuit Oct. 27 against Walker in Dane County Circuit Court to try to force him to unilaterally raise the minimum wage. Walker repeatedly has said he’s opposed to an increase and instead wants to focus on creating jobs that pay two or three times $7.25 an hour.
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development on Oct. 6 rejected complaints for a higher minimum wage from the SEIU front group and close to 100 workers because the state agency found “no reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to the complainants are not a living wage.”
“Most of the complainants who are arguing the minimum wage is not a living wage are making more than the minimum wage — up to $15.07 an hour,” DWD spokesman John Dipko said.
Wisconsin Jobs Now filed the lawsuit because it alleges DWD’s investigation only took into account a report from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association listing the negative impact of increasing the minimum wage.
The lawsuit describes the department’s probe as “barren” and “reflecting zero review of the effect of the wages paid to the employees upon their living standards and welfare.”
Although the DWD has authorized wage increases in the past, the process became more stringent when SEIU sued former Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1995 over the wage level.
After the court ordered the state to conduct an investigation into acceptable wages, the GOP-controlled Legislature amended the law, requiring the department to also base decisions on how an increase would affect “job creation, retention, and expansion, on the availability of entry‐level jobs, and on regional economic conditions within the state.”
The Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s report, conducted by Trinity University economist David Macpherson, projects the state would lose 16,500 jobs if the minimum wage increases to $10.10. A study from the MacIver Institute, released last week, says a $15 minimum wage, which is being requested by fast food and other workers across the country, would eliminate 91,000 jobs in the state.
Because of those cuts in the workforce, Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, is skeptical the court would side with Wisconsin Jobs Now and force a minimum wage hike.
He also questions whether a governor unilaterally mandating a statewide wage increase would be an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.
“I would be real surprised if any governor would want to do that, given the presumption that this is really a legislative thing and the Legislature has, in fact, set a state minimum wage level,” Esenberg told Wisconsin Reporter. “Does the governor really want to sort of get in there and say that the Legislature got it wrong?”
That doesn’t seem to matter to Wisconsin Jobs Now, which has used Walker’s refusal to raise the minimum wage to attack the governor and portray Burke as a savior for low-wage workers.
The nonprofit, which was heavily involved in writing the union-booting living wage law in Milwaukee County, has spent the past several weeks partnering with numerous liberal media outlets to slam Walker and make a case for raising the minimum wage.
Their proof? A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center on Wisconsin Strategy, which has collaborated with Wisconsin Jobs Now community organizer Peter Rickman and the union-backed Economic Policy Institute to create other minimum wage reports.
Wisconsin Jobs Now was also behind a massive effort to persuade more than 10 municipalities and counties to place advisory referendums — at the expense of taxpayers — on the November ballot asking whether the minimum wage should increase.
Because the referendums are non-binding, the results won’t force the state Legislature to take any action. But Wisconsin Jobs Now Executive Director Jennifer Epps-Addison doesn’t appear to care. She told the Huffington Post in July her group is using the referendums simply to entice more liberal voters to the polls to defeat Walker.
Epps-Addison and Rickman did not return Wisconsin Reporter’s requests for comment.
Most recently, Wisconsin Jobs Now has led a “Get Out The Vote” initiative in which organizers have shuttled low-income Milwaukee residents to cast in-person absentee ballots, with at least one Milwaukee elections employee giving the organization special parking privileges.
Wisconsin Jobs Now is promising a vote for Burke will be a vote for higher wages. It remains to be seen if they can keep that promise.