SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota is joining cities and states in the national conversation over raising the minimum wage, and the four candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat are split on the issue.
A state ballot initiative set to go before voters Nov. 4 would raise the wage from the federal $7.25 per hour to $8.50 an hour on Jan. 1 and tie future increases to the cost of living. The proposal has set up a dividing line between supporters who believe it will help struggling families and opponents who say it will do little good and could lead to more unemployment.
Independent candidate Gordon Howie, a former Republican state lawmaker from Rapid City, said there is a growing economic disparity but the real problem is the shrinking value of the dollar.
"As long as we are putting a Band-Aid on it by just increasing the minimum wage, we really aren't accomplishing anything ..." Howie said. "The problem is that the Federal Reserve continues to create millions of more dollars every day. That devalues money in the pockets of the middle and lower classes economically."
Former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, Democrat Rick Weiland and independent candidates Howie and former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler are seeking the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Tim Johnson.
Pressler, a former Republican running as an independent, said he supports increasing the minimum wage as it's difficult for people to earn enough money to take care of their families.
"I think we have a serious problem in South Dakota and elsewhere that people just cannot make a living," Pressler said. "And if we expect them to buy health insurance and so forth, it's just impossible on the minimum wage we have."
Pressler said it's also important to support education, raise teachers' pay and help students with their student loans.
"We're a big, rich country," he said. "We can do that if we cut our foreign military spending, enhance revenue somewhat and do some other tax reform things."
President Barack Obama's push for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour has sputtered, but the issue has spread to states. In neighboring Minnesota, lawmakers recently approved raising the minimum wage from $6.15 an hour to $9.50 an hour by 2016. Hawaii, Maryland, Connecticut and Massachusetts also plan gradual increases.
In the city of Seattle, council members voted earlier this month to gradually raise the minimum wage in Washington's largest city to $15 an hour.
Weiland, a Sioux Falls businessman and one-time staffer for former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, helped carry the petitions for the ballot measure to the Secretary of State's office.
He said the initiative would benefit about 62,000 South Dakota workers — and that group goes far beyond teenagers flipping burgers. Most of those people are working full time, Weiland said, and 80 percent are adults and about half are women.
"I just don't think a buck and a quarter is going to be a hardship," he said. "I think that money goes right back into economy."
Rounds said he opposes the ballot initiative because it has a built-in an inflation multiplier, which he thinks could increase unemployment in the state. And he said many of those earning minimum wage are students working part time.
He also said the issue should be reviewed annually by the state Legislature to balance the potential benefit with the number of small-business jobs that could be lost.
"When you put the automatic inflation rider into it, I think that takes it out of the hands of the Legislature," Rounds said.
But Weiland noted that lawmakers haven't raised the wage despite the need.
"Tie it to the cost of living, then you solve the problem," Weiland said. "We don't have to sit there and let this gap develop like there has been over the past several years."
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