House panel approves minimum wage

Over strong opposition from Gov. Haley Barbour, Mississippi lawmakers are pushing forward with a proposal to set a state minimum wage that's 40 percent higher than the national base of $5.15 an hour.

The Democratic-controlled House Labor Committee approved a bill Thursday to set the minimum wage in Mississippi at $6.25 an hour on July 1 and $7.25 an hour on Jan. 15, 2008.

The committee vote came hours after Republican Barbour told more than 1,000 people at a business meeting that such a steep increase could stymie economic development.

"Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee must be laughing up their sleeves at the idea that Mississippi would do that and drive jobs to Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas and Louisiana," Barbour said during a speech to the Mississippi Economic Council, a state chamber of commerce.

The new Democratic-controlled Congress convened Wednesday and promised quick action on proposals to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over two years.

Some supporters of the Mississippi proposal acknowledge a federal increase could erase their efforts here. And it's not clear whether the Mississippi bill has enough support to pass, even in this statewide election year. Overriding a governor's veto would take two-thirds support in each chamber.

One of the sponsors, Rep. Ricky Cummings, D-Iuka, said he spent two years researching the proposal. He said instead of consulting high-paid experts with million-dollar contracts, he relied on statements from his neighbors and others he said are struggling to stretch their family budgets.

"All of government should not be built around large corporations," Cummings said.

Several business lobbying groups are lining up against the proposal, including the MEC, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

MMA president Jay Moon said the increase "would diminish the supply of entry-level jobs and hinder overall job growth."

"Those workers who start at and stay at the minimum wage generally do so for lack of skills," Moon said. "Increasing the skills of minimum wage workers, instead of pricing them out of the job market, is the answer."

At a Jackson convenience store Thursday, a man who works at a nearby printing plant said he's all for a minimum wage increase, even if he's making more.

"There's no way you can make it on minimum wage," said Gary Ragsdale, 32, who said he earns $13 an hour.

"It's impossible to pay lot rent, a trailer note, a car note, insurance, the light bill, all the things you have to pay, even if you're making more than minimum wage," he said.

Lawmakers in several other states, including Kentucky and Nebraska, are pushing for state minimum wage increases this year.

The Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, signed a state minimum wage increase into law in 2006. On Oct. 1, the minimum wage there increased to $6.25 an hour. Huckabee is term-limited and leaves office next week.

Arizona, California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania raised their minimum wage with the new year, some going as high as $7.50 an hour.