LINCOLN — State lawmakers who oppose raising Nebraska's minimum wage dispensed with debate Monday night, choosing to let their red lights do the talking.
A bill that proposed raising the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour fell five votes short of the 25 needed to advance to the second round.
Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, who made the bill his priority, said lawmakers could have helped Nebraska's working poor move off some of the public assistance programs that are so divisive in the Legislature.
“We're going to pay for challenges of low-income families one way or another, and tonight we decided not to make businesses pay a share of that cost,” he said.
The vote on Legislative Bill 943 was 20-20 with three senators not voting and six excused from the evening debate.
The discussion marked a contrast to a heated debate about two weeks ago over a bill to expand government-funded health coverage for more low-income Nebraskans.
Opponents of the minimum wage measure wasted no ammunition during the two-hour discussion, confident the bill lacked the votes to advance.
When the time arrived they cast “no” votes, indicated by red lights on the floor.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion called the defeat a victory for free-market competition over top-down government.
“For 49 people to sit in here and say what somebody is worth to a business ... is ridiculous,” Kintner said after the vote.
About 32,000 Nebraskans earn minimum wage, which equates to about $15,000 a year for a full-time worker. That's below poverty level for a single parent raising one child, Nordquist said. The minimum wage was last increased four years ago.
Nordquist's proposal would have raised the minimum over a period of three years. He argued that would have given employers time to plan for the increase.
“The purpose of the bill is to make sure hard work pays in Nebraska,” he said as he introduced the measure.
But two amendments intended to make the wage increase more palatable to opponents also failed. One would have exempted small businesses with less than $500,000 in gross annual sales. The second would have exempted all businesses with less than $10 million in gross annual sales and would have applied only to those who worked for their employer for two consecutive years.
Nordquist and other supporters pointed to the experiences in 21 other states whose minimum wages are higher than Nebraska's. In those states, higher wages translated to more spending by consumers and other economic benefits, they argued.
After the votes, Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill said he rejected the amendments because a business' sales aren't the same as its profits.
Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft said she was concerned a higher minimum wage would hurt employers struggling to meet payrolls in rural Nebraska.
Senators also failed to pass an amendment by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop that would have gradually raised the $2.13 an hour paid to those who work for tips. That minimum hasn't been increased since 1991.
Lathrop accused his colleagues who rejected Medicaid expansion of telling working poor Nebraskans to buy their own insurance and now telling them they can't earn more to pay for that insurance.
“Do the math,” Lathrop said. “You can't afford a health plan on the minimum wage.”
Legislative Bill 943, as introduced on Jan. 16