Depending on your point of view, the minimum wage in Texas is a “misery wage” that’s too low for struggling workers to stay afloat, or it’s an efficient entry level pay rate that enables employers to hire more people and create more jobs.
Lawmakers sparred over those competing descriptions Monday during a House committee hearing over a number of bills dealing with the state’s minimum wage, currently set at the federal minimum of $7.25 a hour. Among the bills, several would increase the state’s rate to $10.10 an hour or to $15 an hour, while others would mandate statewide referendums putting the issue to Texas voters.
“What we are asking for is something for the little dogs,” state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, told members of the House committee on Business and Industry, which held the hearing. “Even the little dogs have to eat.”
Her proposal, House bill 937, would increase the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in stages. She and other supporters of a higher minimum cited statistics indicating the rate would be $18.42 a hour if it merely had kept pace with increases in productivity over the past 48 years.
Thompson said that the state’s minimum wage has remained unchanged since 2009 even though prices for food, clothing and other essentials have risen. As things stand, she said, it has become a subsidy for some businesses in the state that don’t pay their workers enough for them to avoid taxpayer-funded public assistance.
But some lawmakers on the committee were skeptical. State Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, who serves as its vice chairman, cited the potential for a higher minimum wage to cause wage inflation that could hurt the Texas economy overall, and he also said it could spur businesses to invest in new technology designed to eliminate some low-wage jobs altogether.
In addition, Shine noted that despite the minimum wage remaining unchanged, job growth has been strong in Texas.
“The minimum wage has not really had any impact at all on people seeking jobs and going back to work,” he said.
Others opponents said job growth could go in the opposite direction if the state’s minimum pay rate is raised. A representative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-leaning think tank, said an increase to $15 a hour would cost the state about 1 million jobs.
Supporters of the increases disputed such scenarios. They said a higher minimum wage would put more money in the hands of people who would spend it on essentials, meaning it would circulate back into the economy.
State Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, recounted his upbringing as the oldest of five children whose single mother struggled to make ends meet at a minimum-wage job at a fast-food chicken restaurant. One of his bills, HB 992, would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“She was working on one income, and that income was misery,” Walle said. “My story, and my mom’s story, is not unique to millions of Texans.”
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, was dubious about the notion that an increase to the minimum rate might be good for the Texas economy. He quizzed Walle about why his bill would set the rate at only $15, if higher is better economically.
“Why not $100” an hour, Stickland asked. “I’m just curious why you stop at any number.”
He also questioned why “the heavy hand of government” is needed to set a minimum wage at all if “it’s so obvious this is a good idea” for the private sector.
Walle called Stickland’s suggestion of a $100 minimum unreasonable, saying he considers $15 a first step in getting the hourly rate up to where people can live on it.
Other bills concerning the minimum wage that were discussed Monday would allow cities and counties to set minimum wage rates above the state rate within their jurisdictions.