Wage War

Sen. Jon Kyl remains mum on a minimum-pay ballot question, while Dems press the issue for political purposes

Ask if Sen. Jon Kyl supports a state proposition hiking the minimum wage, and the answer is either straight-up equivocation or several seconds of silence.

The GOP senator, who is running for re-election this November against Democrat Jim Pederson, has refused to take a stand on Proposition 202, which would increase Arizona's minimum wage to $6.75 in 2007. Hikes would then be made every year to keep pace with inflation.

When most recently asked about the senator's views on the proposition, Andy Chasin, the Kyl campaign's communications director, said: "We're still taking a look at the language in the state minimum-wage initiative."

Considering that journalists have been repeatedly asking for Kyl's opinion on the proposition since at least May, that's a tough sell. Chasin again sidestepped the question when asked when Kyl might make clear his position.

"Well, you know, it had to get on the ballot, and then we still need to look through the language," he said. "There are some questions that have been raised about some of the implications of the language as written, and what it would do. So we are looking at it, and I just talked to somebody about that earlier this week. He's a very cautious legislator; he likes to actually read the language. We're working through it."

Indeed, Kyl's reasons for avoiding the proposition appear to have evolved over time.

In a May 23 article by Reuters reporter Alan Elsner, an unidentified Kyl spokesman said "the senator had not yet taken a position on the issue because it was not yet officially on the ballot." Proposition 202 was certified for the ballot on Aug. 14.

Yet Kyl has enthusiastically made the case for Proposition 107--the state constitutional amendment banning legal recognition of any relationships outside of traditional marriage--well before it was certified on Aug. 31.

Chasin wrote in an e-mail that this was because the state marriage amendment "is closely tied to the federal amendment that he voted on." He also said Kyl had voted to raise the minimum wage 12 times in the Senate, and that he prefers to couple the hikes with tax relief, in order to mitigate the detrimental effects they have on small businesses.

As evidence, Chasin pointed to the most recent congressional bill on minimum wage. The Senate fell four votes short on Aug. 3 of moving forward legislation that would have bumped up the minimum wage by $2.10 over three years, along with a hefty estate-tax break and other tax incentives in such areas as education.

Many Senate Democrats balked at the estate-tax cut, which they said was a giveaway to the super-rich and was fiscally irresponsible. The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation reported the legislation would have decreased federal revenues by an estimated $15.4 billion in 2007, and by $302.4 billion through 2016.

The connection between estate-tax breaks and helping small businesses that may be hurt by minimum-wage increases is difficult to see. According to the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization advocating fiscal responsibility, less than 1 percent of Americans who died in 2004 had estates worth more than the current taxable threshold of $2 million. In effect, more than 99 percent of estates would receive no benefit from such a break, calling into question how helpful that would be for small businesses.

But it was the estate-tax break in the Aug. 3 legislation that the Kyl campaign highlighted in a PR release to counter a Pederson offensive on minimum wage.

"Most recently, Kyl voted to invoke cloture (close debate and vote) on the so-called 'Trifecta Bill,' H.R. 5970, which combined estate-tax relief with an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25/hour (the Kennedy proposal), in addition to other tax extenders," the senator's campaign press-released.

Nevertheless, Chasin was adamant that the estate tax hurts small businesses and accused the Pederson campaign of dredging up the minimum wage as a political tactic.

"The fact is that small businesses and small-business owners are hurt by the estate tax, because a lot of these people spend their lives building up a business," Chasin said. "Then when they die, they end up losing it all. So the small businesses end up having to be sold off, or they're never passed down to their families."

However, the CBO has reported that in 1999 and 2000, when exemption levels were different, less than 5 percent of estates were forced to sell family firms because they didn't have enough liquid assets to pay the tax. "If today's $2 million exemption were in effect then, the number would have been a total of 366 estates," a brief from the Concord Coalition concluded.

Truth be told, Chasin is probably correct that Democrats are exploiting this issue for political advantage. Donna Branch-Gilby, chairwoman of the Pima County Democratic Party, said the minimum-wage initiative will motivate party members to vote, creating a spillover effect that will be a "big help" for Democratic candidates.

"What we've been doing is polling with this question, and even with Democrats who are voters only during the presidential elections, (with) this particular question, about 90 percent of the people who we've called--and we've called thousands--say yes, that they are definitely going to vote for that," she said.

The effect could be similar to that enjoyed by Republican candidates in 2004 when conservative voters turned out to vote for gay-marriage propositions en masse in other states, according to Branch-Gilby.

Kristina Wilfore is the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a think tank helping Democrats strategize using state referendums. Minimum-wage initiatives are on the ballot in a half-dozen states, and she thinks their popularity cuts across party lines. That creates a thorny issue for some GOP politicians, she said.

"The minimum wage is so popular that Republican voters, if they're taking their cues from Republican candidates, don't realize that they should be voting against these things," Wilfore said. "It's just one more factor to show that Kyl is a bit out of step with the majority of Americans on this particular issue."

Perhaps so. But even if the initiative mobilizes Democrats and others to come to the polls, and even if it shows the senator is out of step with most Americans, the Kyl campaign isn't sweating it.

"Sen. Kyl's concern isn't about what issue is going to mobilize what group of voters," Chasin said. "He's trying to do what he believes is best. Sen. Kyl's not one to change his position based on political concerns, so it doesn't concern us in that way."

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