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Illinois Faces Surprising Struggle To Raise Minimum Wage

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin knows firsthand the difficulty in getting a minimum wage increase passed through a legislative body. 

The Illinois Democrat was unsuccessful in getting the U.S. Senate to increase the federal minimum wage this year. Even if Senate Republicans hadn’t filibustered that effort, it would likely have gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled House.

“In years gone by, this was a bipartisan issue,” said Durbin in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan raised the minimum wage. It was just considered to be the right thing to do after a period of time. But now, it’s become very partisan. And unfortunately, Republicans in the Senate -- as well as Republican statewide candidates — are opposed to raising the minimum wage in Illinois.”

But efforts to increase the minimum wage aren't just stalling in divided legislative chambers like Congress. A bid to raise the minimum wage to $10.65-an-hour hasn't made it to the finish line in Durbin's home state of Illinois.

Supporters of increasing the minimum wage did get something of a consolation prize: A non-binding ballot initiative that will go before voters on the same day as competitive elections for governor and Congress. Some, like Durbin, are hoping the timing of that vote will propel the issue through the legislature, while detractors see it as a Democratic turnout mechanism.

At least one outside observer, however, is more skeptical about the ballot item’s impact.

“While it’s conceivable that a minimum wage referendum could help Democratic turnout slightly in Illinois, it’s unlikely that it will drastically alter the make up of the electorate” said Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

Why not Illinois?

Democrats have made raising the minimum wage a major priority in the run-up to the midterm elections. President Barack Obama emphasized the issue during his most recent State of the Union speech, promising to help out states and cities that wanted to raise the minimum wage if Congress didn’t act. 

President Barack Obama.
Credit (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama -- an Illinois native -- has made raising the minimum wage a priority. But his home state hasn't been able to follow through.

These efforts have generally drawn opposition from business groups, including chambers of commerce across the country. Minimum wage increases generally haven’t gone very far in states with Republican legislatures, such as Missouri.

To the passive observer, Illinois seems to be a likely candidate for raising its minimum wage this year. Democrats have huge majorities in the Illinois House and Illinois Senate. It probably doesn't hurt that Obama is, of course, an Illinois native.

But getting a minimum wage hike over the finish line in the Land of Lincoln has been easier said than done. At $8.25 an hour, the state's minimum is already higher than what the federal government requires. Efforts to raise it to $10.65 an hour stalled in the Illinois General Assembly. House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said earlier this year that there wasn’t enough support in the House to get the issue passed.

The proposal aroused opposition from business groups. For instance, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce joined retailing and restaurant organizations from across Illinois in issuing a statement this year against a minimum wage increase. The statement said bringing the minimum wage over $10 an hour would be “far too drastic.”

Jack Temple, a policy analyst with the New York-based National Employment Law Project, said Illinois’ situation isn’t completely unusual. 

Temple, whose group is supports increasing the minimum wage, said battles over increasing the minimum wage on a state level can become less about partisanship and more about the power of interest groups. He said in some states with heavily Democratic legislatures, restaurant associations and chambers of commerce have convinced "moderate" Democrats either to  oppose or weaken minimum wage increases.

“This issue is not a Democratic-versus-Republican issue,” Temple said. “I think it tends to play out that way at the federal level or in Congress. But at a concrete level in these states, voters on both sides of the aisle support this. So, what it becomes is a tug-of-war between workers and industry lobbyists.”

Policy and politics

The deadlock in Springfield yielded a non-binding minimum wage ballot item. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law amid great fanfare. He said in a statement that “Illinois voters will have the opportunity to send a clear signal to lawmakers that we must do the right thing for working families across Illinois.”  

Credit Bill Greenblatt, UPI
Some observers are saying that Gov. Pat Quinn is trying to parlay his support for a minimum wage increase into increased turnout for his tough re-election bid against Republican Bruce Rauner.

Durbin predicted there would be “an overwhelming vote” for the initiative. After that, he expects “quick action by the General Assembly and governor” to get the issue over the finish line. “I think it’s appropriate that we wait a few weeks, talk about it, have the vote by the people of our state and move forward to have a wage that really reflects our respect for hard work,” he said.

But Republicans — and most political observers — concluded the ballot measure was aimed at driving turnout this November. Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, told the Belleville News Democrat that Democrats “are loading the ballot with referendums that mean nothing, just so they can get their traditional supporters out to the polls to vote for them.”

Boosted turnout may be especially important to candidates like Quinn, a Democrat who is engaged in an extensively competitive re-election bid against Republican Bruce Rauner. Quinn will likely try to use the issue as a way to contrast himself with Rauner, who has predicated support for a minimum wage increase with passage of other business-friendly measures.

Still, the initiative may not have its intended impact, according to Crystal Ball's Skelley. He said there is “mixed evidence of referenda actually encouraging far higher turnout than there would have been otherwise.” 

“For example, take the 2004 presidential election. Anecdotally, many commentators have claimed that anti-gay marriage initiatives in many states helped George W. Bush win re-election, particularly in the all-important swing state of Ohio,” Skelley said. “However, studies have shown that support for the traditional marriage amendment in the Buckeye State had no statistically significant impact on voter turnout there.”

Skelley went onto say that if the race between Quinn and Rauner is extremely close, “every little bit could help either side, meaning that Democrats have nothing to lose pushing this referendum and hoping that it tacks on a few extra votes their way.” But he said there are bigger issues at play in the Illinois race, mainly Quinn’s low job approval ratings. 

Durbin — who is facing state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove this year for his re-election bid — predicted the issue would have an impact, not only in Illinois but in other states with minimum wage ballot items, he said.

“I can tell you that a lot of people who think just basically off-year elections aren’t that important may think twice,” Durbin said.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads about Missouri (and Illinois) politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.