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Debate focuses on Iowa minimum wage
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Debate focuses on Iowa minimum wage

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DES MOINES — A question raised more than a year ago — who has the authority to establish Iowa’s minimum wage? — could finally be answered this week following a heated debate Monday evening over whether lawmakers should usurp local governments from taking the matter into their own hands.

Dozens packed a meeting room for a public hearing on House File 295, which could reach a floor debate sometime today in the House.

While the bill seeks to take away some other control — or “home rule” decisions — from local governments, too, most of the speakers Monday focused on its main provision: unraveling higher wage thresholds already enacted in parts of Johnson, Linn, Polk and Wapello counties.

Tired of waiting for the state, Johnson County supervisors voted in 2015 to phase in increases to the state’s $7.25 an hour. The other counties followed, and now minimums in those counties are above the state threshold or on track to get there.

John Noble, a Des Moines resident and member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, described the bill to erase them as “bullying” and an “act of cruelty.”

“This is not a left issue, this is not a right issue — this is a right or wrong issue, and this is wrong,” he said. “I think this represents the absolute deepest of hypocrisy. Local people know what’s best for them ... and what’s best for them is a living wage.”

On the other hand, business owner Mike Holms of Jethro’s barbecue restaurant, which employs more than 600 people and operates mostly in the Des Moines metro area, said the varying wage ordinances across the state hinder businesses’ growth.

He said a key factor in his recent decision to add a restaurant in Ames rather than Iowa City was because the latter is in one of the four counties — Johnson — with inconsistent minimums.

“Right now, it’s the wild west,” he said.

Jessica Dunker, president of the Iowa Restaurant Association, also urged lawmakers to approve the bill.

But she said her organization, which represents more than 6,000 establishments that employ more than 15,000 people, is willing to discuss a possible minimum wage increase — as long as it’s statewide.

“We are willing to come to the table, but it needs to be one table, not 99 or more,” she said.

Gov. Terry Branstad has said he would consider a minimum-wage increase if the Legislature sent him one. But proposals by Democrats this session to do that have died.

Johnson County’s minimum wage ordinance brought the local rate up to $10.10 in January and requires that future adjustments be based on committee recommendations.

Linn County’s minimum wage increased in January to $8.25 an hour and is slated to increase to $9.25 next year and reach $10.25 in 2019.

In addition, Wapello County approved an increase to $10.10 in 2019, while Polk County’s minimum wage will reach $10.75 that same year.

Rep. John Landon, R-Ankeny, who authored HF 295, said that growing number of county wage ordinances spurred a need for a statewide rule.

But Lucas Beenken, representing Iowa Association of Counties, said the bill “flies in the face of home rule” and punishes local entities for responding to their residents’ needs.

“Local control is not supposed to be something the Legislature believes in until they disagree with specific decisions made at the local level ... We believe the citizens of Iowa value local control,” he said. “For home rule to truly be meaningful, we must honor it and let it work.”

The bill has other provisions that also have proved divisive among many organizations.

Lobbyists for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, Iowa Landlord Association and Iowa Restaurant Association have made declarations in support of the measure. But representatives of the Iowa League of Cities, Iowa State Association of Counties and AFSCME Iowa Council 61 oppose it.

The bill would prevent local governments from enacting bans on the use of plastic bags and prohibiting housing discrimination based on a tenant’s source of income. Housing voucher ordinances such as those in Iowa City and Marion — which ban landlords from discriminating against voucher holders — would be abolished.

Michael Triplett, with the Greater Iowa Apartment Association, described those rules as “an egregious overreach” of local power.

In order to remain eligible for further consideration this year, the House must pass the bill and send it to the Senate, where it must clear committee by March 31.

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