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Children at the Nevada Legislature on March 9, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

A long-held progressive policy goal of raising Nevada’s minimum wage is again surfacing at the Legislature, with its best chance to pass in nearly two decades coming even as some advocates are asking lawmakers to raise the floor even higher.

Although many of the points made during an Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee hearing on AB456 reiterated past arguments on raising the minimum wage, Wednesday’s hearing was different: For the first time since 1992, Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, making passage of a minimum wage bill much more likely than at any point in the past two decades.

Familiar battle lines were drawn during the hearing, with restaurants and business groups opposed and labor organizations and progressive groups in support — though a handful of rank-and-file Democratic advocates testified against the bill for not raising the wage to $15 an hour. Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, the bill’s sponsor, said he believed the final product was a product of compromise but that not raising the wage wasn’t an option.

“I recognize there are many folks who think Assembly Bill 456 doesn’t go far enough,” he said. “I recognize that there are many folks who think AB456 goes too far and that we shouldn’t take action at all. And I believe that what is in AB456 reflects a meaningful increase in the wages that our workers can earn, and I think it reflects a good amount of collaboration and work with stakeholders who have not come to a consensus on it but understand the interest and motivation behind increasing the minimum wage.”

Nevada’s minimum wage has not been changed since 2011, with businesses required to pay $8.25 an hour if they do not offer health insurance and $7.25 if health insurance is offered. The current wage was set by a voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2006, creating the tiered system for health insurance and tying the wage to any increases in the federal minimum wage or a cumulative cost of living increase.

The state’s minimum wage law exempts large portions of the state’s workforce, including babysitters, agricultural workers and taxi drivers. Effective minimum wages have increased in at least 27 states and Washington D.C. since January 2014

As amended, the bill would raise the state’s current tiered minimum wage rate by 75 cents in 2020, increasing an additional $1 per year until reaching $12 and $11 per hour in 2023. An amendment presented to the bill removed initial language related to civil litigation for underpayment of wages and a lower per-year increase of 75 cents a year until reaching the $12 and $11 wage marks.

But advocates and Frierson said the state’s eight-year period without any minimum wage increase (tied for the longest period without a wage increase since 1969) had left thousands of workers, from an increasingly diverse demographic and age background, struggling to make ends meet as wages stayed flat. Frierson cited statistics from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute indicating that roughly 13,000 Nevada workers made less than the $8.25 minimum wage, and that an estimated 10 percent of the state’s workforce earns less than $9 an hour as proof that a wage raise was needed.

“These are just numbers that I believe are unacceptable,” he said.

Supporters of the bill included a wide swath of progressive groups and labor unions, who highlighted the fact that minimum wage jobs were increasingly being filled by older workers. Pastor Ralph Williamson of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, who heads the Faith Organizing Alliance group, said his North Las Vegas church holds a weekly food bank every Thursday which is attended by many individuals who can’t make enough money at their minimum wage jobs to feed themselves or their families.

“As a pastor, I have a moral obligation to be here. As a faith leader, I cannot continue to see our community suffer due to low wages,” he said. “I cannot continue to see our neighbors, brothers and sisters get preyed upon by certain greedy corporations and businesses that are taking advantage of those making low wages.”

Opponents included several chambers of commerce and various individual restaurants, who said that while they were not in theory opposed to raising the wage floor, wanted certain exemptions and carve-outs for new employee “training” wages or to avoid raising the wages for service industry and other tipped workers.

Sean Higgins, a lobbyist for Golden Entertainment, said the casino company would welcome an increase in the minimum wage for its non-tipped employees, but said without a carve-out for tipped employees the bill would significantly shift the landscape of the state’s gaming and hospitality industry.

“If this gets passed, you will have locations reducing hours, automating, increasing prices and possibly even adding service charges to bills to make up for their bottom line,” he said. “All these have an effect on tipped employees, and the majority of them are negative.”

Those suggestions of creating an alternative subminimum wage structure bristled Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton — a former waitress, who peppered Higgins and lobbyists for the restaurant industry as to whether their support was contingent on a “tip credit” or not allowing tipped employees to realize a minimum wage higher than the one required by the state Constitution.

“The reason this state is the state that it is, is because tipped employees, the service employees of this state, built this state,” she said. “And the reason they built it, and the reason they came here, is because there was no sub-minimum wage. We own homes, we have health care, we have pensions, we serve in the Legislature, we are good community citizens. We should not be treated differently because we choose to work in an industry where the tip is laid on the table.”

The bill was also opposed by a handful of progressive activists, including Gabrielle d’Ayr, who asked lawmakers to raise the wage floor either more quickly or all the way to $15 an hour.

“Inflation is not going to stand still,” she said. “By the time we get to 2023, even with the conceptual amendment, we will be back where we started.”

The measure falls in line with what Gov. Steve Sisolak said he would support at a January Nevada Independent forum, where the governor said he would support a minimum wage of at least $12 an hour with an increase of “something like $1 a year for three, four years.”

In 2017, Democratic lawmakers approved two bills raising the minimum wage including a Senate effort to bump the wage to $12 per hour over five years. That bill was eventually vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, alongside an effort by Assembly Democrats to establish a minimum level of health benefits required for employers to qualify for the $7.25 per hour minimum.

In 2015, legislative attempts to raise the wage to $15 an hour, $9 an hour and eliminating it entirely and replacing it with a system based on the Consumer Price Index all failed to pass.

A 2017 poll by The Nevada Independent found more than two-thirds of Nevada voters supported a raise to the minimum wage, although the poll did not identify a specific dollar-per-hour target.

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