Undeterred by Wolf’s deadline, House GOP weighs a path forward for minimum wage hike

Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee, speaks at a hearing. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

A House Republican who’s key to the approval of the state’s first minimum wage hike in more than a decade isn’t saying no to that hike — but he isn’t saying yes either.

“This is a philosophical shift for a lot of us,” House Labor and Industry Committee Chairman Jim Cox, R-Berks, told the Capital-Star earlier this week. “But if we’re going to do anything with this, we’ve got to decide if it’s something we can live with back in our districts; if it’s something that the people in our districts even want.”

The state Senate voted last month to boost Pennsylvania’s current $7.25 an hour minimum to $9.50 an hour. But the bill still needs to be approved by the House. And Cox’s panel has to sign off before it can be sent to the full chamber. 

Cox added that the next step is to see what, “if anything,” will get the committee’s 15 Republicans to vote “yes.”

Pennsylvania’s $7.25 minimum wage has been a hot political topic for the last few years. Gov. Tom Wolf has poured his political capital into negotiating an increase with the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Wolf had wanted $15 an hour, but instead received $9.50.

In exchange, Wolf agreed to give up on pushing an expansion of the state’s overtime rule to help some low-wage managers make time-and-a-half. Business groups yearning to stave off the rule, such as the state Chamber of Business and Industry, instead struck the minimum wage deal which the Senate passed 42-7. 

But as the House has yet to schedule a vote, Wolf decided to up the pressure. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that the Democratic governor would move forward with the regulation anyway if the House didn’t pass the deal by the next meeting of a state regulatory board Jan. 30.

Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, confirmed that “pending action by the House to raise the minimum wage, the overtime regulations will go to IRRC [Independent Regularly Review Commission] for their January meeting.”

Part of the reason for the bill’s icy reception in the House has been continued lobbying from business groups, such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which opposes the wage hike.

Gordon Denlinger, the NFIB’s state director, told the Capital-Star that he expected House Republicans would need to get their chance at the table with Wolf to extract some more concessions for the bill to pass.

But nothing has stopped legislative Democrats from firing off rhetorical barbs at the House GOP. 

At a Wednesday press conference, Democratic lawmakers referenced Charles Dickens’ “A  Christmas Carol,” and called House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, “the Grinch” as they called on the  chamber’s Republicans to move the bill. 

They also bristled at the notion that Republicans could ask for any more wins within the bill.

“That [bill] is a compromise, and it’s taken a lot for us here to swallow it and be willing to support the baby step that it is,” Rep. Mary Isaacson, D-Philadelphia, said. “We’re not even getting to a double digit number in this compromise.”

According to estimates by the progressive Economic Policy Institute, the increase will impact 609,000 workers directly and indirectly, and increase incomes by nearly $500 million.

But conservatives often counter that a wage increase will also lead to fewer hours and lost jobs.