Tucson Is A Low-Wage Town -- But A $7-An-Hour Minimum Wage Is No Fix
By Dave Devine
IN LATE SEPTEMBER, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report which once again showed how special our state really is. Along with only Vermont and Montana, Arizona was in the exclusive club of states which saw an increase in poverty between 1995 and 1996.
Why is this happening in our booming economy with almost full employment? According to a recent front-page story in The Arizona Republic, "Blame the state's rising poverty level on low-paying jobs, experts say."
The abysmally high percentage of people living in poverty in Tucson has been well documented (See "Poor Relations," Tucson Weekly, February 20). Despite that, very few community leaders seem to want to do anything about the problem. Instead, they follow traditional liberal 1960s Democratic thinking, which has them giving money, housing and food stamps to the poor instead of helping those living in poverty improve their own lives. Perhaps the working poor should threaten to incorporate in order to get local leaders to seriously address their plight.
But a few things are being done to change the situation. The most visible is the Tucson Livable Wage Initiative to be voted on November 4.
Proposition 202 raises the minimum wage inside the city limits from the federal standard of $5.15 an hour to $7. Every year after that a cost-of-living adjustment would be made to the wage to keep it current with inflation.
The prospects of this change so frightened local businesses that they pushed the state Legislature to make the initiative illegal. That was done, but the legality of that preemptive strike has yet to be tested in court.
Carolyn Trowbridge, who is campaigning for the proposition, believes its passage will benefit poor and working people while improving the local economy. She disagrees with the notion that businesses will flee Tucson if the measure is adopted. The city supplies the population base the businesses need to survive, Trowbridge says, so they will stay.
She also thinks the community must change its approach to bringing companies to town. She says millions are spent attracting low-wage employers. Instead, she'd like to see local leaders work harder to attract firms that pay livable wages. "We sell ourselves short," Trowbridge said, "by portraying Tucson as a low-wage town."
Marshall Vest, of the University of Arizona's College of Business and Public Administration, disagrees with Trowbridge's assessment of the impact of the proposition. Its implementation, he says, could be devastating to the city. It would deteriorate the tax base, and new businesses would locate where the higher wage rate wasn't in place. In addition, Vest believes that fewer jobs at $7 an hour would exist, since the pay scale would exceed the skill level of many of those holding the positions.
Ric Gordon, former owner of Ric's Cafe and the local leader of the Arizona Restaurant Association's effort to defeat the measure, agrees with Vest. He says businesses are fighting for their economic lives by opposing the proposition, but that they do support higher wages. "We can't survive as a community with low wages," Gordon said. He believes education and training programs, some of which are presently in place, are the proper approach to raising wage rates.
What about the preemptive strike passed by the Legislature? Doesn't that make this whole discussion irrelevant? Not according to Paul Gattone, attorney for the Livable Wage Committee.
Gattone questions whether the Legislature has the authority to limit access to the political process, as they tried to do in this case. He adds that if the preemption is found to be legal, it could potentially nullify the entire initiative process. In the future the state Legislature, not the voters, might be deciding what proposition measures could or would be approved through the ballot box.
Despite what standard economic theory tells us about the impact of this proposition, the temptation to support it is great. A yes vote would send the signal that Tucson voters actually want to do something about low wages in the city. Approving the measure can also be seen as a "free" vote with no repercussions because of the Legislature's preemptive action.
Those behind the proposition are a group of hard-working volunteers who want to improve Tucson. Unfortunately, passage of the initiative would almost certainly hurt those it's intended to help. Whatever the outcome on this issue, Tucson must address its low-wage status and come up with concrete steps to change the existing situation.
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