- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear raised the minimum wage for some state workers to $10.10 per hour on Monday, following similar decisions by some of the nation’s largest employers and the state’s largest city.

The increase, which takes effect July 1, is $2.85 higher than the previous minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. It will cost taxpayers about $1.6 million and affect about 800 positions, a mix of full-time and part-time employees in the executive branch. It also applies to private companies that have state contracts. But it won’t take effect until those contracts come up for renewal. It does not apply to people who work in the judicial and legislative branches.

State workers who make most of their money on tips, including restaurant staff at some state parks, would get a raise to $4.90 per hour. Beshear said about a third of the affected employees work in state nursing homes caring for military veterans. Most of the other affected workers work in behavioral health centers and state parks.

“The more the lowest end of our economic ladder makes, the less people will be on government assistance programs,” Beshear said at a news conference at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where some state employees work for less than $10.10 per hour. “If you really want smaller government, then let’s raise the minimum wage and we’ll have smaller government.”

National Democratic party leaders have made raising the minimum wage a priority in recent elections as wages have dropped following a crippling economic recession. Across the country, states and cities mostly controlled by Democrats have raised the minimum wage. Last year, Louisville became the first city in Kentucky - and the first in the South - to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour, above the federal level of $7.25 per hour. Several business groups have sued the city to block the increase.

Beshear and other Kentucky Democrats have tried for years to pass a law requiring everyone to pay salaries of at least $10.10 per hour, but each attempt failed to pass the Republican-controlled state Senate. Meanwhile, about 510 state employees worked for less than the minimum wage. Now with just six months left in his term, Beshear said the state could afford to raise the wage for those workers, plus an extra 269 workers who make at or just above $10 an hour.

“We went through a tough recession. And it was tough on the state just like it was tough in individual families and we had to sit down every night just like families did and try to figure out what bills to pay the next day, that’s what state government had to do,” Beshear said. “Now that we’re coming out of this recession, we’re prospering economically, our growth has been significant and it is time that we share that progress with families that are in the low end of the economic spectrum.”

As the nation’s economic outlook improves, other major employers are doing the same. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, announced earlier this year it would boost the starting pay for its workers to $9 an hour. In April, Aetna announced it would increase the lowest hourly rate for its employees to $16 per hour.

Republicans have mostly opposed minimum wage increases, arguing the government should not force companies to pay higher wages but instead focus on policies that grow the economy and allow companies to pay higher wages.

“Today Governor Beshear is taking a page out of the Obama administration’s playbook by forcing through failed legislation by executive action,” said state Rep. Jeff Hoover, the Republican leader in the state House of Representatives. “It seems Governor Beshear apparently now understands he doesn’t have to pass another budget and feels comfortable in adding to the strain on Kentucky’s finances.”

Public polls show voters generally favor raising minimum wage laws. But that has not translated to electoral success for Kentucky Democrats. Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes repeatedly criticized Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell during the 2014 campaign for voting against minimum wage increases. But Grimes lost to McConnell by more than 15 percentage points.

The issue could be prominent in Kentucky’s governor’s race between Republican Matt Bevin, who opposes minimum wage increases, and Democrat Jack Conway, who supports them. A spokesman for Conway said he supports the governor’s plan. A spokesman for Bevin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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