LINCOLN — Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative Tuesday to raise the state’s minimum wage, joining 23 states that currently set minimum wages higher than what’s mandated by the federal government.
Initiative 425, backed by a $1.4 million war chest, faced no organized opposition.
It will hike the state’s minimum wage to $8 per hour in 2015, and to $9 an hour in 2016.
It was a break from tradition: In the past, Nebraska has always followed the minimum wage mandated by the federal government, which currently is $7.25 per hour.
Nebraskans for Better Wages collected 135,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and organizers credited bipartisan support for the measure’s easy victory Tuesday.
“Nebraskans universally share the value that 40 hours of work each week should be enough to afford the basics and care for your family,” said State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha.
“We made history,” said Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, the Initiative 425 campaign director. “Raising the minimum wage is an issue that unified Nebraskans.”
Jim Vokal of the Omaha-based Platte Institute, which opposed the initiative, said the outcome was about what he expected, given support for such ballot issues in other states.
“It’s a national trend,” Vokal said. “I just don’t think that people understand the long-term effects of this, but history will tell.”
Nordquist said the vote was “a shot across the bow” to elected officials who might ignore working families. He said it might help boost other issues, such as the expansion of Medicaid to more low-income Nebraskans, an issue that has failed to pass in the Nebraska Legislature the past two years.
Twenty-three states currently have minimum wages higher than the federal wage, but proposals to raise minimum wages have been a hot issue nationally. On Tuesday, voters in Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota also approved minimum wage hikes. And Illinois voters passed a non-binding referendum on increasing the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $10.
The efforts by Nebraskans for Better Wages were supported by some of the state’s wealthiest residents, as well as labor unions and advocates for the poor.
While conservative-leaning groups like the Platte Institute spoke out against Initiative 425, no formal opposition campaign emerged. One political heavyweight, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry, for instance, sat out the issue, declining to take a stand on raising the minimum wage.
Conrad said that the overwhelming success of the petition drive to put the issue on the ballot may have dampened any thoughts of defeating the measure.
Opponents said the higher wages will force businesses to cut hours and reduce jobs, hurting low-wage workers. Supporters, meanwhile, maintained that increased wages will help struggling families, who will be able to increase their spending, boosting the economy.
“There are people who are now working two jobs to make ends meet,” said Angela Plater, an Omaha Democrat who voted to raise the minimum wage.
An Omaha Republican, Norman K. Anderson, 75, voted against the initiative. He said the minimum wage should “be a good start for kids in high school” not a wage for adults supporting families.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 6.7 percent of the state’s hourly workers, or nearly 95,000 Nebraskans, earn less than $9 an hour.
World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.
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