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Windy Boy wage bill gets hearing

Representatives of labor groups and the needy lined up this morning to testify in behalf of Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy’s proposal to increase the Montana minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in a hearing before the state Senate’s Business, Labor and Economy Committee.

At the same time, representatives of business groups were on hand to say that the increase would cause undue harm to small businesses, especially retailers and restaurant owners.

The committee did not vote on the proposal, though the panel could vote as early as Thursday.

State Labor Commissioner Pam Bucy, who said she was speaking on behalf of Gov. Steve Bullock, said she supported Windy Boy’s bill and countered opponents who contend that minimum wage workers are primarily high school and college students on summer jobs.

Most are women, many older women, she said.

She also disputed arguments that a hike in the minimum wage would result in higher unemployment.

The state increased its minimum wage to $8.05 Jan. 1 because of the mandated cost-of-living increase. Yet, over the last year, Montana’s jobless rate has declined from 5.8 percent to 4.3 percent, she said..

Representatives of AFL-CIO Montana, MEA-MFT, the Teamsters, groups representing abused women and Native American groups spoke in behalf of the Windy Boy proposal.

But former State Sen. Joe Balyeat, now an official with Americans for Prosperity-Montana, said the jobless rate for unskilled workers is higher than for any other group. That’s because minimum wage requirements have already priced unskilled workers out of the marketplace. Raising the minium wage would make that problem worse, he said.

He asked lawmakers to “table the bill and let the free market work.”

Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, proposed an amendment that would give three-year tax breaks to small businesses who hire minimum wage workers, but Glenn Oppel, representing the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said that was a bad idea. because it would pass the cost of the wage hikes on to taxpayers.

Sen. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said she favored Windy Boy’s bill because it would help people who are “poor but moving up.”

“This would help resurrect the middle class,” she said.

No Republican members spoke on the bill, but they control the committee and both houses of the Legislature, making prospects for the bill unsure at best.


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