Portage County considers minimum-wage referendum
Written by Sari Lesk, Stevens Point Journal Media
STEVENS POINT – Jody Hurrish, 63, was trembling by the time she finished her testimony.
She had just finished telling the story of her adult life to Portage County's Finance Committee — her history of being in an abusive marriage, her slew of health problems and her battle with post traumatic stress disorder. She's unable to work, she said, and her only income is from Social Security. She uses food stamps to purchase the one meal she eats per day.
But she didn't say it for her own benefit.
"The workers making minimum wage now will be in the same situation I am in when it is time for them to collect Social Security," Hurrish said to the committee members.
Hurrish was among several people who took the time to tell their stories to the committee this week, hoping the committee would recommend to the Portage County Board that the county use a referendum to seek residents' opinions on raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from the $7.25 it has been since 2009. After hearing testimony, the committee voted in favor of recommending the full board consider the question.
If the question appears on the November ballot, it will ask Portage County voters, "Should the state of Wisconsin increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour?" The question does not reference when the wage increase should take place or whether it should be implemented incrementally.
The advisory referendum question, already approved by at least five other counties in Wisconsin, now moves forward to the full board for consideration at its August board meeting along with another referendum question on whether Wisconsin should accept federal funds to expand BadgerCare.
State Rep. Katrina Shankland said she routinely hears about the minimum wage from her constituents. She said she hopes to see support for the issue when board members vote on a minimum wage referendum question as well as one asking constituents' opinions about expanding BadgerCare.
"These have been grassroots issues that have been very important to the citizens of Portage County," Shankland said.
She said the results of the referendum question will give her data to bring to the state Legislature and that it shold carry considerable weight because the issue was brought up by Portage County residents, not an organization or politicians.
"I want the people's voices of Portage County to be weighed equally," Shankland said.
At Monday's meeting, residents gave the committee members petitions with about 600 signatures from across the county from people who support raising the minimum wage.
County Board Member Tom Mallison, who analyzed the petition results, said about 40 of the signatures came from Amherst, represented on the board by Lonnie Krogwold, who was the only committee member to vote against recommending the referendum.
Krogwold said people who support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 are not looking at the issue as a whole, such as considering how the measure would affect people whose current pay rate is $10 per hour.
"They don't understand the ramifications of what this would do to the whole business, not just the minimum wage people," Krogwold said.
Experts, however, say there's little evidence to support the damage opponents of the measure suggest will occur should the minimum wage increase.
Ed Miller, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said the pay scale at a business may compress at the bottom if the minimum wage increases, but most businesses are able to find ways to absorb the change.
Miller said the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation or increased costs of living. He said the minimum wage needs to be at a level where it's worthwhile for someone to get a job.
"If you want somebody to work, you've got to make the work pay," he said.
He said research does not support the argument that raising the minimum wage would cost the country jobs.
"The fact is that it's very little impact on jobs," Miller said. "These individuals who are getting the minimum wage go out and buy things, so it contributes to the economy."
Similarly, Kevin Neuman, UWSP professor of economics, said moderate minimum wage increases don't appear to hurt overall employment.
"There won't be catastrophic negative effects," Neuman said.
He said the current minimum wage forces some working families to live below the poverty line. In a single-parent family with two children, for example, a minimum wage job would pay approximately $15,080 a year. The 2014 poverty line for a family of three is $19,790, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.