SPRINGFIELD | Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s signing of the first of a series of increases in Illinois’ minimum wage.
And now, his former running mate and successor, Gov. Pat Quinn, says he wants to push the state’s $8.25 per hour minimum wage even higher.
As part of a stump speech at a political event in Springfield last week, the Democrat from Chicago said he hadn’t given up on his stalled plan to raise the nation’s fourth highest minimum wage to $10 an hour.
For Quinn, the target of the increase represents a key voting bloc as he runs for a second full term as chief executive.
“The governor is not going to stand idly by and let low-wage workers bear the brunt of our economic challenges,” spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said. “The more money you put in their pockets, the more money they will spend in their local communities and the better for Illinois it is.”
“Nobody should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty,” Anderson added.
In 2003, Illinois joined 11 other states in boosting its minimum wage above the then-national standard of $5.15 an hour. Illinois’ wage jumped to $5.50 an hour in January 2004 and then $6.50 an hour beginning in 2005.
At the time, business groups complained the move would make Illinois an island among its Midwestern neighbors and send businesses scurrying across the borders.
Blagojevich called the claims “baloney” and in 2006 signed another series of increases to bring Illinois to where it is today at $8.25 per hour.
In a letter written in support of the additional increases, the now-jailed former chief executive said, “Despite predictions from opponents of the minimum wage that its increase would harm the economy, since the higher wage took effect, Illinois has added more than 152,000 new jobs since January 2004, which is more than any state in the Midwest according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, unemployment rate has fallen from 6.7 percent in January 2003, when the fight for the higher minimum wage began, to 4.1 percent today.”
Those low unemployment numbers are not the case today. This week, new national jobs figures show Illinois with the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation. The 9.2 percent rate, combined with the state’s ongoing pension mess, a large pile of unpaid bills and a temporary 67 percent hike in the income tax rate, has business groups girding for another fight.
Kim Maisch, Illinois director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said her organization will again try to make the case that Illinois businesses are struggling in the wake of the recession and cannot afford the increased cost of doing business.
“I don’t think there is just one thing ailing the state’s economy,” Maisch said. “But, you’ve got to ask why our neighboring states are doing so much better regarding unemployment.”
Along with Quinn’s proposed $1.75 increase, state Sen. Kim Lightford, D-Maywood, is sponsoring a proposal that would increase the minimum wage by 50 cents each year until it is over $10 per hour.
Her goal is to have the minimum wage match the buying power of what the minimum wage was in 1968, when it was $1.60 per hour.
Both her plan and Quinn’s would make Illinois tops in the nation, a position now held by the state of Washington and its $9.19 per hour minimum wage.
But, with Quinn and state lawmakers focused on reforming the state’s underfunded pension systems, it appears unlikely that the minimum wage will be taken up during the short fall veto session. Rather, it could begin to gain momentum in 2014 as the campaign season begins to heat up.
“The number one thing holding our economy back is this pension cloud hovering over our state,” Anderson said. "The best thing you can do to drive down unemployment, to create jobs, to boost economic growth across Illinois is to enact comprehensive pension reform."