Battle lines drawn in upcoming minimum wage fight

Nevada lawmakers spent more than two hours hearing testimony on a lightning rod proposal that would nearly double the state’s minimum wage, marking the opening shots in what promises to be one of the major partisan battles of the legislative session.

Democratic Assemblyman Will McCurdy presented AB175 to the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor on Wednesday, a measure that would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour for workers with employer-offered health care and $8.25 for those without — to a similarly tiered system of $14 and $15 an hour over several years through incremental $1.25 annual increases.

The high-profile hearing — which saw packed committee rooms in Carson City and Las Vegas and impassioned testimony from supporters and opponents — was the first chance for lawmakers, lobbyists and activists to publicly debate the economics and merits of raising the wage, which has remained the same since 2009.

McCurdy, a freshman legislator who is also running for Democratic state party chair, said a raise was long overdue

“I say it’s time to give workers a boost,” he said. “It’s a raise they have earned, a raise that they deserve.”

Support and opposition for the legislation — the second minimum wage hike introduced in the first two weeks of the session — fell along familiar partisan lines, with Democrats, progressive groups and union representatives supporting the legislation and Republicans and business representatives opposing the measure. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Maria Salinas, a home health care worker and member of the Service Employees Union International, said she hadn’t received a pay raise in years and that a wage increase would make a significant difference in her ability to provide for her children and save for the future.

“It will not make me or any other home health care worker rich, but it will make us feel valuable,” she said.

Also invited to testify was Paul Sonn, general counsel with the National Employment Law Project, who said the “lion’s share” of minimum wage research showed a negligible impact on prices or businesses

“States are finding that a very significant rephrasing of the wage floor is one of the most high-impact things that can be done,” he said.

Other groups championing small government and businesses vehemently opposed the legislation. Ronald Najarro, representing the Koch brothers-backed LIBRE Initiative, said that the group’s research found that minimum wage increases primarily hurt young, less-educated and Hispanic workers.

“Latino workers all over the southwest are suffering from the results of these well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous minimum wage hikes,” he said.

Paul Moradkhan, a lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern over the rushed timeline of the proposal with only 48-hours between the bill’s introduction and a hearing on the measure. Speaker Jason Frierson pressed Moradkhan on the legitimacy of that argument given that the chamber has long opposed efforts to increase the minimum wage.

“I’m concerned about lamenting the timeline of when this bill came out when there was opposition to it before it came out,” Frierson said.

Moradkhan said that the chamber looks at each bill individually but committed to remaining at the table throughout the discussion on raising the minimum wage.

Though Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, a minimum wage increase still faces several hurdles.

Any change to the minimum wage would need to be signed off on by Gov. Brian Sandoval. The governor’s office has said in recent weeks that the governor has “historically opposed a legislative mandate to increase the minimum wage,” though he would not comment on the legislation until it undergoes a full review.

And legislation raising the wage to $15 an hour would need approval from legislative Democrats, many of whom have been publicly coy about their preference for what the wage floor should be.

McCurdy said in a brief interview after the hearing that his caucus hasn’t come to a wage figure that all Assembly Democrats can support. Democratic Senate Leader Aaron Ford said in a Tuesday interview that he was still reserving judgment on support for a $15 minimum wage.

Any change in Nevada’s minimum wage would affect a large swath of the state’s workforce, which is clustered around a number of low-paying jobs and with about 9 percent of the state’s workforce earns $9 or less an hour. Roughly a third of Nevada workers earn under $15 an hour.

Megan Messerly contributed to this story.