Bills Would Boost Minimum Wage in Va.

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly, long unfriendly to proposals on raising the minimum wage, will consider bills sponsored by Northern Virginia legislators who say the state should no longer tie its rate to that set by the federal government.

While business groups strongly oppose the legislation, backers of the wage increase say that after years of waiting for Congress to raise the $5.15-an-hour rate, it is time to press ahead at the state level for the sake of low-income workers.

Similar legislation has died quickly in the assembly, but this year's effort comes as 18 other states and the District have taken steps to raise their wages independent of the federal government. This month, Maryland lawmakers voted to increase wages there to $6.15 an hour, overriding a veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The rate is $7 an hour in Washington.

"From our perspective, this has got legs. It's got momentum," said Laurie Peterson, president of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, which opposes the effort. "We have grave concerns about it."

One difference in Virginia this year is that a bill to increase the wage is being sponsored by Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Callahan and Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) have proposed bills that would raise the minimum wage in Virginia from $5.15 to $6.15 on July 1. If the bills pass, wages would rise again by $1 in 2007 and then again by $1 the next year. After that, the proposals would peg increases to the rising cost of goods and services, rather than the federally mandated minimum wage, as has always been the case in Virginia.

"It bothers me that a state that is as affluent as Virginia is still paying people Third World wages," Callahan said. "You can't support a family on that."

Colgan called the current wage "not livable -- below the poverty line."

The Senate bill is scheduled to face its first test in a committee tomorrow afternoon. The chairman of a House of Delegates subcommittee scheduled to hear its version of the bill said the panel is likely to take it up early Tuesday.

Business groups such as Peterson's are firmly against the legislation, and their word carries weight in Virginia, a state that prides itself on its reputation as business-friendly. They argue that many beneficiaries of a minimum wage increase would be teenagers and part-time workers, not those supporting families.

Peterson said too that the three years of successive increases envisioned in the bills would result in higher wages for many more workers than just those now making $5.15. That could cost businesses significantly and result in jobs being lost, she said.

"The problem is that it sends a ripple effect," she said. "If you raise the floor, you're raising it all the way through."

Although there might be "fair questions" about whether the federal wage is too low, the issue is best dealt with in Washington, not Richmond, said Hugh D. Keogh, president and chief executive of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. That way, the state doesn't risk losing business to states that pay the federal wage.

"We see it as a competitive issue," Keogh said. "I think it would send the wrong message about the business climate in Virginia."

The wage increase is the only item on the legislative agenda for the Northern Virginia-based group Social Action Linking Together.

"It's needed now," said John Horejsi, founder of the largely Catholic group. "If you're going to wait for the federal government to move, nothing will happen."

The group has dubbed the measure the "fair wage act" and has been lobbying members of the committees that will determine whether the bills can be heard on the floors of the Senate and House of Delegates.

"We tell people they should be responsible and get off welfare," Horejsi said.

"They're doing it. But if they're getting jobs that are so bad they're impoverished, then they're no better off. What kind of progress is that?"

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