By Rick Kennedy, managing editor
In addition to county and city races, the November 6 election will include a handful of voter initiatives on the ballot, the most controversial of which has been Ballot Issue 5, to raise the Arkansas Minimum Wage to $11 an hour by 2021.
The minimum wage in Arkansas, including Hope and Hempstead County, stands at $8.50 per hour, while the current Federal minimum wage for covered nonexempt employees is $7.25, which was enacted in July 2009, now over nine years ago.
Statewide, organizations like the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce have come out publicly against the measure as have the majority of the state’s Congressional delegation, including District 4’s incumbent Congressman Bruce Westerman.
Westerman, R-Hot Springs, currently represents all of southwestern Arkansas, and he is facing an aggressive re-election challenge from his own backyard from Democrat Hayden Shamel, also from Hot Springs.
In a statement distributed to state media outlets last Friday, Ryan Saylor, Westerman’s principal spokesperson, said Westerman was planning to vote against the minimum-wage increase. There was no further elaboration on the statement as this report was being prepared for publishing Tuesday afternoon.
Shamel, however, did offer an extended statement to SWARK.Today on Tuesday in an emailed response.
“My opponent and I are sharply opposed on this issue. I am fighting for higher wages because I care deeply about the people of Arkansas. Bruce is fighting for profits for corporations and special interest groups that are funding his campaign,” Shamel said.
“As an educator who has taught in high schools and community colleges throughout south and central Arkansas, I know that one out of every four of our children and elderly are living in poverty. We deserve a representative who knows that our people shouldn’t have to work two and three jobs just to make ends meet to provide for their kids and that there shouldn’t even be a category called ‘Working Poor,'” she said.
Westerman’s fellow Republican, Governor Asa Hutchinson, also facing a Democratic challenger, Jared Henderson, made a public statement, saying “I will not vote for the ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage over 3 years to $11.00 per hour. This would be a job killer for our youth particularly. It is playing with fire to set a wage rate three years from now when we do not know the economic conditions that far down the road. I support raising the minimum wage, but it should be done through legislative action at such time when the economic outlook supports the action.”
Locally, one worker, Sheila Young, said she was glad to see the measure on the ballot.
“That’s the only way to get a raise anymore. You can work hard all your life, and be a dependable employee, but you can’t expect to get a raise in Hope, Arkansas; they don’t want to pay people around here and think you should have two jobs, if you want to have anything,” she said.
Melinda Murphy said, “There is always the risk of customer inflation, but the truth is that wages have not kept up very well with the increased cost of living the past ten years. It just isn’t realistic to expect working class people to absorb the increased costs of gas, food, insurance and healthcare, and continue to survive on low wages.”
“It is also bad for morale, when people like the Governor speak out against helping workers, while the CEOs make millions in salaries and severance packages. There is a real disparity, and real people are struggling to make it work for them, not the Governor, the politicians, or the CEOs. It makes it sound like all the politicians only support the companies and not the workers,” she said.
“Instead of a ballot, I wish more employers would just do the right thing and take care of their workers, who help them get those profits and build their businesses, like they used to,” Murphy said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Issue 5 remained on the ballot, even as the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce had filed an appeal with the Arkansas State Supreme Court. SWARK.Today will publish an update as more information becomes available, or if the Supreme Court should rule to remove the measure.
By Rick Kennedy, managing editor