Bid to Raise Minimum Wage Dies in Virginia

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

RICHMOND, Feb. 7 -- Virginia lawmakers have rejected efforts to raise the state's minimum wage, which has remained $5.15 an hour since 1997.

Virginia's wage is tied to the federal minimum rate, but after years of waiting for Congress to boost the salary nationally, two Northern Virginia legislators had urged their colleagues to raise it at the state level. Eighteen states, including Maryland, along with the District, have adopted a higher minimum wage than the federal government mandates.

Last week, a Senate committee rejected a bill sponsored by Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) that would have boosted the wage to $6.15 on July 1, raised it again by $1 in 2007 and then again in 2008.

Advocates had hoped for more success in the House of Delegates, where a similar bill was proposed by Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Tuesday, however, a House subcommittee killed Callahan's bill as well. The vote effectively ends the effort for the year, because of rules adopted this year that give subcommittees, which have eight members, the power to block legislation.

After the vote, which took place before 8 a.m. in a small conference room on the General Assembly Building's fourth floor, Callahan said the action was no surprise, given the traditional opposition to such bills in the Virginia legislature.

Still, he said it would send a message to low-paid workers: "They'll continue to be low-paid."

Supporters of the bill, including a Catholic citizens group based in Fairfax, argued that the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation and that low-income workers who earn it live below the poverty line.

Business groups had opposed the twin measures, asserting that increasing the minimum wage would put Virginia at a competitive disadvantage with states that stick by the federal number. They said too that larger payroll costs would force businesses to cut jobs.

Hugh D. Keogh, president and chief executive of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said the two votes illustrate important differences between Virginia and Maryland, where lawmakers recently passed a minimum wage increase over a veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

"We have a very different business climate here and a very different posture toward business," he said.

Virginia's low unemployment rate, the second best in the nation, indicates that the state's business environment has produced desired results, he said. "These are good numbers," Keogh said.

Activists presented statistics to the House subcommittee from states where the wage has been raised, indicating that businesses elsewhere had not suffered. And the director of a Norfolk shelter for the homeless told delegates that she regularly serves patrons who are unable to afford a place to live, even though they work full time at minimum wage.

"I can't look at a family anymore and say work is a path out of homelessness," said Thaler McCormick, executive director of ForKids.

The activists promised to return next year.

"This is a devastating blow, but we're not going to walk away," said Sue Capers, who works with the Virginia Coalition for the Homeless.

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