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Senate compromises on minimum wage hike
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DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina says the increase would help the 49,000 Minesotans who earn a minimum wage, currently at $5.15 an hour. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Workers who make the minimum wage are in line for a $1 raise in August, following a Minnesota Senate vote Tuesday that affirmed a compromise approved by the House and supported by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15 since 1997. The new wage would be $6.15, with some exceptions for the state's smallest businesses. The measure passed the Senate 44-22.

"Six dollars and 15 cents is still a bare-bones increase," said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul. But, she added, any increase was good.

The increase is half the size of one the DFL-led Senate previously approved. Their $2 wage hike would have taken place in two steps over two years.

The final bill would have a lower minimum wage for businesses that have less than $625,000 in gross sales. They would pay $5.25 an hour, up from the current $4.90.

The Minnesota House had been a major hurdle for a minimum wage hike over the last eight years. But this year, the measure passed overwhelmingly on an 84-50 vote.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, was the chief backer of the increase. He says the hike will help the 49,000 Minnesotans who currently earn the state's minimum wage, which is currently $5.15 an hour. Rukavina says it will also bump up wages for those who earn slightly more than minimum wage.

"Those are the people who are really out there in the trenches doing things we appreciate," Rukavina said. "Whether they're changing the bedpans in our nursing homes or changing the linen in the hotels, or feeding our kids at the schools."

Rukavina's bill would increase the minimum wage differently depending on the size of the employer. Larger employers who do more than $625,000 worth of business a year would have to increase their minimum wage to $6.15 an hour.

People will only pay so much for a hamburger and french fries in a town of 300 people.
- Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall

Smaller businesses would have to increase the minimum wage to $5.25 an hour. The bill would also require employers to pay workers under the age of 20, $4.90 an hour for their first three months of work.

Rukavina was pushing for a larger increase, but he says he compromised with House Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty to avoid a veto. Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung says the governor will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

"It's been several years since the last minimum wage increase has passed in Minnesota," McClung said. "He's supported a reasonable minimum wage increase. There's pros and cons, but the governor felt like a minimum wage increase of this size is the right thing to do."

"It's a bare-bones amount of money, to be sure," Sen. Ellen Anderson said. "But I think a $1 increase is a good solid increase, so I'm certainly giving it consideration as a good enough bill for this year."

Critics of the measure say small employers in rural Minnesota and businesses along the North and South Dakota border will suffer if the increase becomes law. Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, says the increase could force employers to lay off workers.

"You might as well as put a giveaway sign on the front door, because people will only pay so much for a hamburger and french fries in a town of 300 people," Seifert said. "It's the corporations like McDonald's and Wal-Mart that love minimum wage increases. They get to snuff out Grandma's restaurant because they can't afford to pay these higher minimum wage mandates."

Others say some businesses may be forced to close if the wage hike becomes law. Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield, says the Legislature is sending the wrong message to those who may want to start a business in Minnesota.

"Welcome to the business world, welcome to business in Minnesota," Demmer said. "We love it here, We love to have you here so we can screw ya. Folks, this is a bad idea."

The vote in the House did not fall along party lines -- 18 Republicans joined all 66 House DFLers to vote in favor of the bill.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)