PA House Democrats Clarify the Minimum Wage Debate

Marc Stier |

Yesterday, Pennsylvania House Democrats, under minority leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny), stepped up in a big way for raising the minimum wage in Pennsylvania. And in doing so they made it obvious who is responsible for blocking a path to raising the minimum wage.

During the debate on the state budget, one Democrat after another stood up to complain that the Republicans had refused to raise the minimum wage as part of the budget.

Republican Speaker of the House Mike Turzai tried to cut off debate, bizarrely ruling that raising the minimum wage was not part of the budget. This is nonsense. Raising the minimum wage would both increase taxes and reduce spending (mostly on Medicaid) and obviously has budgetary implications. If it is legitimate to discuss the lack of funding for education or for General Assistance or infrastructure in the budget—and no one denies that—it’s certainly legitimate to discuss raising the minimum wage.

However, the Republicans don’t want to discuss their failure to raise the wage. They know that 70% of Pennsylvanians want them to raise the wage. Since their right-wing ideology tells them, against almost all the evidence, that raising wages for working people (like cutting taxes for the rich) is bad, they don’t want to vote for raising the wage.

So they try to avoid the issue. They held no hearings on the issue, except for a kangaroo hearing in which only two economists who seemed utterly unfamiliar with recent research on the benefits of raising the wage testified. They often are unwilling to meet with constituents to discuss the issue. (I know. Our allies have tried to see many of them, over and over). Even when they hesitatingly say they support raising the wage, they won’t commit to a particular level. Their leaders in the Senate have hinted and hinted that maybe this is the time to do it and have private discussion with Democrats that started to seem fruitful. But they won’t bring a bill to the floor. And the House leaders, Bryan Cutler and Mike Turzai, won’t even have those discussions.

So it’s no surprise that they tried to shut down debate yesterday in the House. The Democratic leadership protested the ruling of Speaker Turzai blocking debate on the minimum wage, but on a party-line vote his absurd attempt to stifle the debate was not rejected.

And then the Democratic leaders did something unexpected. Democratic caucus chair Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) moved to table the budget debate with instructions to the Democratic and Republican leaders to meet and come back with a proposal to raise the wage within a few hours.

That allowed for more debate and for a vote. On a party-line vote, all Democrats voted for Harris’s motion and all Republicans voted no.

This is a vote Republicans are going to have to either walk back or defend.

Some of those Republican members of the House are going to cry foul. This was a procedural vote they will say, not a vote on the substance of raising the minimum wage. Some Republican members of the House will say, “Well I support raising the minimum wage, but I had to vote with my party.”

We’re not going to let them get away with that answer. They are right, this was a key party vote. And so long as they support their party, and the leadership of their party will not allow a vote on the floor of the House on the minimum wage, the General Assembly will never raise the minimum wage. It doesn’t make one whit of difference whether a Republican member comes out and says he or she supports a $10, $11, $12, $15 or even $22 minimum wage. If they vote to put members in charge of the House of Representatives and then won’t stand against that leadership when it comes to the minimum wage, it will be stuck at $7.25 indefinitely.

The Democratic leadership in the House did a wonderful job of clarifying this minimum wage issue for us yesterday. And now Pennsylvanians who care deeply about the issue know where their legislators stand when it comes to raising the minimum wage.