Boom or Bust, Part I: Is Portage County at a Tipping Point in the Battle Over Minimum Wage?
Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a 4-part series studying the proposed minimum wage hike in Portage County. Part II can be seen in the September 7th issue of the Stevens Point City- Times.
By Brandi Makuski
Portage County residents will have their chance in November to vote on whether they want the state’s minimum wage raised to $10.10 per hour. But some call into question whether a vote on a non-binding advisory referendum will hold any weight on the state level- and whether the process used to bring the resolution forward was even proper.
In one of the most divided votes to come from the board, the County Board of Supervisors agreed by a vote of 13-11 to include the referendum question: “Should the state of Wisconsin in- crease the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour?” on the November 4th ballot.
Should the referendum pass, it means the county is in favor of nearly a $3 per hour raise from the current minimum wage $7.25, and though it will be non-binding and will not directly become law, could have an effect on future state legislation. Had the referendum been a binding one, it would have required a petition signed by 15 percent of the total number of registered voters in the last gubernatorial election- a number far higher than the 600 garnered on Shankland’s petition.
If the referendum passes, Portage County will be the 7th of the state’s 72 counties to call for an increase to the state’s minimum wage.
The origin of the proposal to increase the minimum wage isn’t completely clear, but according to Board Supervisor Tom Mallison, movement on the idea began during a conversation he had with Assemblywoman Katrina Shankland.
“It started with a bunch of different people talking about the issue, and I heard from numerous constituents about the possibility of doing something because there were other counties doing a referendum as well,” Mallison said. “I talked to Katrina (Shankland), and the petition was organized.”
Mallison added he asked Shankland to deliver the petition to him so he could verify the signatures.
“I had to go through and make sure all the signatures were from Portage County- there was just a hair over 600,” he said, adding 9 signatures were struck because the signatures were illegible, others because they didn’t reside in the county.
“It wasn’t a professional petition, so I went to Google Maps to verify the addresses which I wasn’t familiar with, I wanted supervisors had a better understanding of what municipalities everyone who signed was in,” he said.
Shankland addressed the county’s Finance Committee on August 4, also presenting them with copies of the petition, and though it was not distributed to each member of the board, Mallison said a copy is available for the record.
In her address to the county, Shankland said the movement to increase minimum wage was a “grassroots campaign” by her constituents, and the petition was circulated at various county fairs and other public events over the course of a few weeks.
“I kept hearing from people all over the county how import- ant this issue was, and people kept asking me, ‘When are you going to raise the minimum wage?’ everywhere I went,” Shankland said.
She said there are currently two bills in the state legislature and another in Congress relating to minimum wage but neither had gained any traction.
“In that kind of situation, where people are ahead of politicians, I think the best way to go for it is really grassroots, and that’s really what happened,” she said.
According to Shankland, minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation.
“The last minimum wage increase was July, 2009. Since then the cost of tuition has risen significantly: the cost of utilities has risen 10 percent; cheese, 22 percent, milk, 21.2 percent, car insurance, 24 percent, stamps 20 percent, rent 23 percent, cable 54 percent, and coffee 27 percent,” Shankland said in an telephone interview in August. “Looking at how much cost of living has actually increases versus wages actually stagnating, people really need to react to the situation.”
Shankland also said American workers’ wages have been “stagnate” for about a decade, and a minimum wage hike would bring more than half a million Wisconsinites out of poverty.
According to figures from the Portage Co. Hunger & Poverty Prevention Partnership released last week, requests for assistance have risen locally across the board. More than 1,400 people requested emergency assistance including food, energy assistance and other help.
But how a raise in minimum wage could affect local governments is uncertain.
The City of Steven Point has just ap- proved a new pay plan few are happy with, but Portage Co. currently pays nearly all hourly employees more than $10. HR Assistant Director Amanda Streicher said some seasonal jobs might need to be reevaluated, but added the increase to $10.10, should it become effective, wouldn’t happen overnight.
“What I can tell you is the last time the minimum wage was increased it was by $.25, we didn’t have to change our pay scale,” Streicher said. “This is certainly a greater amount and would have a greater affect, I think if this goes through we’ll have to reevaluate if there’s a greater impact and what our strategy is for that.”
But before HR directors across the county need to worry, momentum needs to increase across the state.
According to Finance Committee Chairman Jim Gifford, Mallison asked for the issue to be placed on the August agenda so Shankland and others could address the committee, spear- heading momentum locally.
Gifford said he agreed to place the topic on the agenda because the issue is one he thinks his constituents want a stake in crafting its formal movement to state representatives.
“The public has a valid interest in speaking on it,” said Gifford, who voted in favor of placing the referendum on the ballot. “I have no idea what the public will do on something like this,” he added. “But there seems to be a lot of division on it.”
County Clerk Shirley Simonis said she’s not seen the petition, nor was it formally registered with the county, but since it is a non-binding referendum, it wasn’t a requirement, either.
“The just asked us if we could do if without the formal process,” Gifford said of Shankland’s petition. “I don’t even know if she knew there was a process.”
That’s a sore spot with Supervisor Don Butkowski, who doesn’t agree with Gifford, saying the entire board should have been received a copy of the petition prior to the vote.
“I’m disappointed because I don’t even know the question that was asked on the petition,” Butkowski said. “I’ve asked Shirley (Simonis, County Clerk), and she didn’t know either.”
Butkowksi also pointed to a petition signed by about 60 Town of Hull residents objecting to a new high-capacity well in the town which was properly registered with the town leaders. Whether the petition was acted upon or not wasn’t the issue, he said, but rather the process used to bring attention to the issue.
“That process wasn’t used here,” Butkowski said. “And that should be the norm that petitions all have to be registered with the governmental body so the names and addresses can be verified by the clerk before it’s acted upon.”
When asked why each member of the County Board hadn’t been given a copy of the petition, Mallison said, “It was given to everybody on Finance (Committee), and then a copy for the re- cord. I would assume you could go get it if you want it. I can tell you it wasn’t included in the board packet, but every member of finance was given a copy.”
Mallsion said he did his homework, though, by speaking with some area business owners, and the reaction was a surprise to him.
“I’ve seen it as a mix; I would say a 75/25 mix, where 75 percent is not in support,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s my understanding from an article I read in either a Milwaukee or Madison paper that 41 percent of the population is going to want a say on this come November 4, and I didn’t want the resident of Portage County to be excluded.”