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Our Minimum Wage Bill Finally Passed. The Sun Came Up the Next Day.

February 28, 2020

reptomstevens

These are my comments on the floor of the House regarding S.23, our bill to raise the minimum wage in Vermont. I had the privilege of leading off the conversation, which was more a series of recitations of support or opposition to the notion of overriding the veto of the Governor of the bill.

Madam Speaker:

I rise today to support the override of the Governor’s veto of S.23, an act that would raise the minimum wage from $10.96 today to $12.55 in 2022.

Madam Speaker, Let’s be clear: this Governor has never supported raising the minimum wage beyond the beggarly increases due to inflation. And his reasoning for denying nearly 40,000 Vermonters a small raise echo the ones he has given in the past for his lack of support for these Vermonters. He includes in his veto message several claims that look like, on paper, substantial reasons for telling Vermonters — a preponderence of them women, a preponderance of them primary wage earners in their families, all of them struggling in a Vermont deemed too expensive by the governor himself — that they are not worthy of a raise, a raise that, in and of itself, is insufficient to keep up with the increased cost of living, the increased cost of rent, the increased cost of food and clothing and health care and, as the economic world passes them by, the increased cost of poverty.

The Governor’s veto, in essence, lays the burden of poverty at the feet of those who are suffering by working for poverty wages.

Madam Speaker, to quote Studs Terkel, “our country owes every citizen of the United States of America a means of livelihood. Not a handout, but a way to make it.” We even say it in our statute, when we write “It is the declared public policy of the State of Vermont that workers employed in any occupation should receive wages sufficient to provide adequate maintenance and to protect their health, and to be fairly commensurate with the value of the services rendered.”

Madam Speaker, the committees of jurisdiction on this bill heard hours of testimony and received stacks and stacks of information on the reasons why increasing the minimum wage will help 40,000 Vermonters, a preponderence of them women, a preponderence of them the primary wage earners in their family, was the right way to go. We heard too the objections of some, who felt like paying their employees a little more was a fatal choice to their business. We heard, we listened, and we voted to increase the wage.

To justify the veto, the Governor uses statistics that we heard copious amounts of testimony on — statistics that actually make the argument that a raise in the minimum wage will not hurt the economy at all in any meaningful way.

First, that jobs will disappear. This is true, but not in the way he implies. Jobs will disappear because people will be able to work less hours for the wages they make now. That is an improvement in one’s quality of life. Adjacent to this statistic is the Governor’s own 6-3-1 math — by his calculation, there will be less people of working age at a rate of over 1,000 per year, whether or not the job pays well or is a poverty wage. How many jobs? (NOT how many people will be employed, but how many jobs will be lost? In the first year? 90. In the second year of the raise? 280.

Second, he mentions increased costs of goods and services. These costs are increasing whether or not the lowest paid workers in Vermont, the preponderence of whom are women and the preponderence of whom are heads of households, have a higher minimum wage.

Third, he mentions there will be an overall negative impact on economic growth. What he fails to mention is that the estimate provided by our Joint Fiscal Office is stretched between 2025 and 2040, and that it will make a difference of 8/100 of one percent on our Gross Domestic Product by then. This is a tough statistic, if for no other reason we expect our pension problems settled by then, and according to economists, our financial health will return to being sunny and 70 everyday. A guesstimate like this over 20 years is nothing more than that, a guess.

Madam Speaker, most economists and most social scientists agree that the best way to help low-income, poverty wage workers is to simply give them more money. Our work in this body has done some elemental work in smoothing out many parts of the benefits cliff, which won’t be negatively affected by this wage increase, and we know that while insufficient, this minimal increase to the poverty wage will not bankrupt the businesses that pay this wage, whether they are located in rural areas of the state, or in the more settled areas. And our work has shown that no economy has ever collapsed by providing a small increase in the minimum wage.

Madam Speaker, I will finish with two quotes:

It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.

Who said this? No, not Karl Marx, but Abraham Lincoln, in 1861.

And this one, from a Vermonter, was delivered at a public hearing in 2018. They said:

If I made a living wage, my life would be different. There would be small changes. I would sleep on a bed, not the floor. I would eat three meals a day, not one and a half. There would be big changes, too. I would carry health insurance and monitor the imbalances in my endocrine system that affect my mood, my weight, and even my fertility. It is impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you can’t afford the boots.

Madam Speaker, on behalf of those who do not have a loud voice in this building, I ask the body to override the governor’s veto, and to support those 40,000 Vermonters — a preponderence of them women, and a preponderence of them the primary wage earner in their family — who deserve a raise.

Update: The Governor’s veto of S.23 was overriden by a vote of 100-49.

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