LINCOLN, Neb. | Proponents of raising Nebraska’s minimum wage are running a full-on campaign to rally support for their cause and get sympathetic people registered and ready to vote, state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said this week.
“Most of our effort has been targeted, going door to door and through the mail,” said Nordquist, one of two state senators at the helm of the main group pushing to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 in 2016.
Nebraskans for Better Wages pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into its successful petition drive to get the issue on the November ballot and has continued spending heavily to ensure its passage.
Missing so far is a coordinated counterattack from opponents who see an increased minimum wage as detrimental to local businesses and the state’s economy.
“We’re anticipating it though,” Nordquist said.
In other states, opponents of minimum-wage hikes have waited until about three weeks before Election Day to begin high-profile advertising blitzes, the Omaha senator said, and he expects to see the same thing here.
In the meantime, both sides are firing off competing studies citing numbers favorable to their positions.
On Monday, the conservative Employment Policies Institute released a poll of 301 mostly small employers in the state, contending a minimum wage increase would lead to higher prices, lost jobs and reduced hours at a majority of the businesses surveyed.
On Wednesday, advocates of the wage increase cited contrasting research by the National Employment Law Project touting the benefits of an increase, which it says will boost spending and encourage economic growth.
Passing Initiative 425 would generate more than $73.9 million in economic activity and help create more than 400 full-time jobs “as businesses expand to meet increased consumer demand,” the National Employment Law Project study says.
But Jim Vokal, whose Omaha-based Platte Institute has released reports critical of a minimum wage increase, says states that have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum experience higher unemployment than Nebraska. He cited California and Washington as examples.
“I don’t know if our math is better, but we certainly have history on our side,” said Vokal. “I just think our math is correct.”
Does the math even matter?
“No,” says Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Willa Cather professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“People who care about this issue at all already have pretty firm opinions,” she said.
The 1970s Buick of public opinion is not easily steered, but studies generate water cooler talk between “opinion leaders” or “political elites,” which can grease the wheels for TV advertising and other more assertive campaign moves.
“They’re trying to get people to move from that default response,” Theiss-Morse said. If you’re an opponent, “you want to have people open to the idea that … maybe it’s a no.”
The state’s three major business groups -- the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce -- all have expressed concerns about raising the minimum wage, but none has engaged in aggressive efforts to defeat it.
“I think the money that you’d have to put into something like that is probably beyond what we would be interested in doing,” said Bruce Bohrer, executive vice president and general counsel for the Lincoln Chamber.
The Lincoln Independent Business Association polled its members as state lawmakers mulled raising the minimum wage by an act of the Legislature rather than a public vote.
“What we found is that we had many members who were opposed to an increase in minimum wage,” said Ann Post, LIBA’s general counsel.
The group opposed the measure in the Legislature, but hasn’t taken an official stance on the ballot issue.
UNL’s Theiss-Morse said it would be tough, but not impossible for opponents to defeat the increase.
Her big question: “What’s the turnout going to be?”
November’s is a midterm election, and Theiss-Morse said boosting statewide voter turnout by even a couple of percentage points would help -- 3 percent “would be great” -- for supporters of increasing the minimum wage.
“I would think it would pass,” she said. “No doubt in a presidential year that it would pass.”