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Congressional Minimum Wage Vote Sets Stage For State Battle

Activists lobby for a $15-an-hour minimum wage outside the capital in January.
Activists lobby for a $15-an-hour minimum wage outside the capital in January.

All seven Virginia Democrats in the House of Representatives voted on Thursday to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But while Democrats' dreams of raising the national minimum wage are all but certain to be dashed by the Republican Senate, they’re hoping for better luck at raising Virginia's minimum wage.

The issue has become a focal point for both parties ahead of November’s elections, with candidates featuring it in campaign ads and talking points.

Sheila Bynum-Coleman, a real estate agent challenging Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, has  vowed to raise the minimum wage and says Cox “has ensured that Virginia has one of the lowest in the country.” Sen. Minority leader Dick Saslaw ran  Facebook ads in March touting his push to raise the wage to $15 an hour.

“Ivanka Trump is wrong -- Americans want and deserve a livable wage,” the ads said, referencing  Trump's comments that the minimum wage “is not something most people want.”

Across the aisle, Sen. Majority Leader Tommy Norment, said in a press release earlier this month that Virginia’s top billing on CNBC’s “Top States for Business” was threatened by Democrat’s plans for the wage.

“California, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York are all mired in the lower half of the list, and all have adopted the Democrats’ $15 minimum wage scheme,” Norment said, listing states that have become a refrain for Republicans warning of the danger of a legislature controlled by Democrats.

Norment  brought a minimum wage bill to a floor vote earlier this year in an attempt to warn the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed a Democrat, what would happen if the GOP took control of the chamber.

Laura Goren, research director at the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, said raising the wage was overdue given the gradual erosion of the value of the dollar.

“Back in 1968, the minimum wage was $10.15 an hour in current dollars, and now it’s $7.25 an hour,” Goren said. “So that means that families can’t afford to pay their rent, pay for groceries, pay for health insurance -- everything else that people need to make a decent living for their families.”

But Nicole Riley, Virginia Director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said raising the minimum wage would hurt businesses that already struggle to stay competitive in a tight labor market.

“To try to absorb those type of labor costs will be really difficult for small business owners,” Riley said.

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Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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