FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky’s local governments are reviving a pair of proposals that have been bogged down at the state and federal level in the run-up to November’s high-stakes elections.
In Louisville, the state’s largest city, the Metro Council’s Democratic majority is trying to increase the county’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. In more conservative areas, Republicans have pushed back by trying to pass local laws that would weaken unions.
Both issues have not passed at the state and federal level. If these local proposals pass, the result could create a hodgepodge of laws across the state’s 120 counties, with companies paying higher wages in some counties while in other counties governments give companies a tool to fight higher-paid union jobs.
“Generally speaking, businesses want a sort of conformity across the state,” said Bryan Sunderland, vice president of communications for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce that supports the union legislation and opposes the minimum wage increase. “If they have to deal with different sets of rules, no matter what those rules are, it adds to the cost of doing business.”
The Louisville Metro Council, which includes both the City of Louisville and Jefferson County, would become the 16th local government to pass a minimum wage ordinance, according to the National Employment Law Project. The highest is in Seattle, which recently approved a minimum wage of $15 per hour to be phased in by 2021. Kentucky’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal government.
Other cities that have recently imposed a higher minimum wage include Washington, Richmond, Virginia, and San Diego.
Minimum wage advocates look to Louisville’s proposed increase as a big step, given its status as a southern city in a state that has voted Republican in recent federal elections. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says Kentucky has about 49,000 workers who earn at or below the minimum wage.
Oxfam America, an advocacy group, estimates the increase could benefit up to 61,000 Louisville workers who earn between $7.25 per hour and $11.50 per hour.
“Louisville passing a minimum wage increase will say to other large, southern cities that we are being a leader and we are providing you with a model you can use to look at raising the wage in your locality,” said Councilwoman Attica Scott, the sponsor of Louisville’s minimum wage ordinance.
Republican council members are fighting the increase, aided by the local chamber of commerce, which came out against the bill. Kelly Donward, vice chairman of the council’s Republican caucus, said Louisville is already at a disadvantage compared to its surrounding counties.
“Louisville is an island surrounded by counties that have less taxation across the board,” he said. “Indexing (the minimum wage) to the cost of living has some merit. But arbitrarily raising the rate because you want to or because it is a political issue is just wrong.”
In more conservative counties, leaders have been inspired to jump-start one of their pet projects: right-to-work laws that would outlaw “closed shops,” or mandatory membership into a labor union as a condition of employment. The issue is popular with the Republican-controlled state Senate but has not passed the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives.
Republican state Senate President Robert Stivers has asked Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway for an advisory opinion on whether local governments could pass local right-to-work ordinances.
The idea is gaining traction among a trio of northern Kentucky counties that compete with neighboring Ohio to attract businesses and jobs. In Kenton County, which has lost two large companies to Ohio in recent years, incoming Judge Executive Kris Knochelmann said he plans to push for a local right-to-work ordinance when he takes office in January.
“If we can’t get right to work legislation passed statewide it should be pushed forward at the local level,” he said
Tim Donoghue, president of the Northern Kentucky Labor Council, vowed to fight any right-to-work proposal because he said it would lower wages of the county’s tax base.
“You’re actually shooting yourself in the foot,” he said.
The issues are playing heavily in the fall elections, which Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes has made raising the minimum wage a key part of her campaign. And Scott said she hopes Grimes will testify at a committee meeting on the issue.
During a televised debate on Monday, McConnell specifically mentioned Louisville’s effort to raise the minimum wage and noted it would cost about a 1,400 jobs in the city, citing University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes.
“Now these jobs, 50 percent of them come from young people who in the Obama economy are having a heck of a time finding work,” McConnell said. “I can’t think of a worse time to be killing jobs for young people than right now.”
Grimes cited a study from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, that said raising the minimum wage would boost wages of 30 percent of Kentuckians.
“I’m in this race to hopefully give hardworking Kentuckians a fighting chance to actually earn a good wage … making sure we grow the middle class the right way,” Grimes said.
State House Republican candidates have said passing a right-to-work law would be one of their priorities should they win a majority in November for the first time since 1920. But with a Democratic governor, the bill would likely be vetoed.
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