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Florida to vote on minimum wage

A proposed constitutional amendment now on the November ballot would raise the rate by $1 an hour and tie future increases to inflation.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published July 28, 2004


TALLAHASSEE - A citizens initiative to raise the minimum wage by $1 an hour in Florida has secured a spot on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Sponsors say the proposed constitutional amendment will have the added bonus of increasing Democratic turnout in a key presidential battleground state.

The measure would set the Florida minimum wage at $6.15 an hour and tie annual increases to inflation. It would apply to anyone covered by the federal minimum wage, which hasn't changed in seven years.

"The smartest CEOs in the world know this is the right thing to do," said Joe Johnson, campaign manager for Floridians for All, which sponsored the initiative.

If it is approved by voters, 300,000 people who work for less than $6.15 an hour would directly benefit. Supporters say an additional 400,000 or more workers who make less than $7.15 will probably also see their pay go up.

"It's a wonderfully popular idea," Johnson said.

But it is strongly opposed by business groups, particularly restaurants and retail.

"This doesn't just affect minimum wage. It affects all wages," said Rick McAllister, head of the Florida Retail Federation.

To stay competitive and keep employees, businesses will have to raise wages across the board, McAllister said. The inflation index part required by the amendment, he added, is "dangerous."

"You really are talking about something that could have a billion-dollar inflationary effect on the state of Florida," McAllister said.

Nearly 1-million people signed petitions to get the measure before voters, and amendment backers say that and internal polls show the idea has wide popular support. The campaign raised about $1-million to gather the petitions, with most of the money from traditional Democratic groups: trial lawyers and unions.

John Kerry, who accepts the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday, has endorsed the amendment and supporters say it should help him win Florida.

"It's a nonpartisan campaign and it is a strategy to bring the voices of working families into this election," said Brian Kettenring of St. Petersburg, chief organizer for ACORN in Florida, which backed the effort. ACORN is a national group whose name stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

News that the initiative made it on the ballot was cheered by Democrats at their convention in Boston, who heard Sen. Ted Kennedy call for increasing the federal minimum wage.

"We're supposed to be a progressive state and we don't even have a minimum standard of living for people in Florida," said state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville. "In Florida, all we worry about is economic capital. We need to worry about human capital because we're a tourist state."

While Kerry supports the measure, President Bush has not taken a position. His brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, opposes it. "The governor has been and is committed to bringing high wage jobs to the state, but he believes setting an arbitrary number on the minimum wage will actually have an adverse affect and cost the state jobs," a spokeswoman said.

Twelve other states and the District of Columbia already have increased the minimum wage. The New York Legislature followed suit last week.

The $5.15 minimum wage gives a full-time worker a weekly paycheck of $206 and an annual income of $10,712. That puts a single parent working full time nearly $1,800 below the official poverty line. Inflation has climbed 16 percent since 1997, the last time the federal minimum wage increased.

Florida has a disproportionate number and percentage of low-wage jobs, according to an annual report prepared by Bruce Nissen, research director at the Center for Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University.

Nearly 4 percent of Florida's workers made minimum wage or less in 2002, compared with 3 percent nationally. More than a quarter of the state's workers make less than $8 an hour, which is below poverty for a family of four.

"We're talking about people working 40 hours a week and living in poverty," said Dwayne Sealy, secretary-treasurer of the Florida AFL-CIO.

The minimum wage citizens initiative has more than 531,000 verified signatures, according to the state Division of Elections. That's more than the 488,722 required of petition drives to make the ballot.

The state Supreme Court has approved the ballot language. Voters also will see at least four other constitutional amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot.

- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

THE BALLOT

Here is what voters will see on the Nov. 2 ballot:

This amendment creates a Florida minimum wage covering all employees in the state covered by the federal minimum wage. The state minimum wage will start at $6.15 per hour six months after enactment, and thereafter be indexed to inflation each year. It provides for enforcement, including double damages for unpaid wages, attorney's fees and fines by the state. It forbids retaliation against employees for exercising this right.

OTHER AMENDMENTS

SLOT MACHINES Would allow Miami-Dade and Broward counties to vote on whether to authorize slot machines in existing parimutuel facilities, such as horse tracks, greyhound tracks and jai alai frontons.

AMENDMENTS Would push the deadline for citizen initiatives up by six months.

PARENTAL NOTICE Would allow the Legislature to require parental notification for teen girls seeking abortions.

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE Would cap attorney fees in medical malpractice cases at 30 percent of the first $250,000 awarded a plaintiff and 10 percent of anything above that.