Minimum-wage hike may be June's big horse trade in Pa. Capitol

Pennsylvania's Capitol Building in Harrisburg (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)

June in Harrisburg is when mayflies swarm from the Susquehanna River and the state Capitol teems with lobbyists and politicians horse-trading over the tens of billions of dollars that will keep Pennsylvania ticking for another year.

This year, Pennsylvania's minimum wage might be the biggest horse traded.

Raising the wage is getting its most serious discussion since Democratic Gov. Wolf began calling for an increase in 2015 and, for that matter, since the federal minimum wage was last increased in 2009, lawmakers say.

The question, Democrats say, is how big of an increase leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature will support and what sort of concession they will demand in return.

"We've talked with the (Republican) leaders over the last several weeks," said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny. "They're all saying `We can talk,' and they're probably going to need some things in exchange for a minimum wage increase. We'll have to see."

Until now, Republican lawmakers have rebuffed Wolf's minimum-wage overtures, warning that raising the minimum will squeeze business owners and kill off low-wage jobs that are an on-ramp to the workforce. Wolf's administration maintains that a wage increase will improve the state's finances and Democrats say it will boost wages have stagnated for the lowest earners.

On Monday, rank-and-file lawmakers will return to the Capitol following a break for much of May. 

Daily voting sessions are scheduled through the end of June, or at least until lawmakers wrap up an approximately $34 billion budget package for the fiscal year starting July 1.

That package could include a minimum-wage increase 

Currently, Pennsylvania is one of 21 states whose minimum wage is set at the $7.25 per hour federal minimum. The other 29 states, including all of Pennsylvania's neighbors, have higher minimums and half of the 50 states have authorized an automatic future wage increase of some sort.

In January, Wolf proposed taking Pennsylvania's hourly minimum to $12 on July 1 -- a move that would put it in line with the highest state minimum wages, according to federal data. His plan also eliminates Pennsylvania's $2.83 tipped-wage minimum, as a few other states have done, and authorizes annual 50-cent increases to bring the minimum wage to $15 in 2025.

Republicans quickly rejected an increase to $12 an hour, but a number of GOP lawmakers say they are willing to go along with a more modest increase. Some kind of increase may be good politics for lawmakers in politically divided districts where victories in 2020 elections could help the GOP maintain its majorities, particularly in the Senate.

In that chamber, Labor and Industry Committee Chairwoman Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, is preparing legislation to boost the minimum wage by a "cost-of-living increase," which she said would protect business owners from crushing new costs.

She declined to give details.

Senate Majority Policy Committee Chairman David Argall, R-Schuylkill, said he also supports some sort of minimum-wage increase and that Senate Republicans have discussed the idea of tying an increase to policies to get more people into the workforce and off public assistance programs.

In the House, Majority Leader Brian Cutler, R-Lancaster, acknowledged that minimum wage is a subject of discussion with Wolf's office. But, he said, his caucus is not developing a counterproposal to the governor's plan and he would not say what sort of increase, if any, the caucus might support, or whether it would block any sort of increase.

"For me, I'd rather focus on the jobs that pay far more than minimum wage and get career pathways to get individuals earning a lot more," Cutler said.

The discussion comes at a time when there is relative harmony around the budget in the Capitol and a bipartisan focus on strengthening training for people to work in skilled trades and high-tech jobs.

Still, most of Wolf's top non-budget priorities are treading water, and lawmakers, including Republicans, suggest that giving Wolf a policy "win" will help Republicans secure concessions on their policy priorities.

Boosting the minimum wage could be that win, but it is likely to be more complicated than settling on an increase in the wage.

For instance, Pennsylvania's neighboring states tend to have special rules for smaller businesses or certain geographical areas. Democrats, meanwhile, want to repeal Pennsylvania's prohibition on municipalities setting their own minimum-wage rates.

"When we get back into session on Monday, I'm sure all of those issues will percolate to the top," Bartolotta said, "and we'll address that as it comes."