FRANKFORT — Raising Kentucky's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour will be the top priority of House Democrats in the legislative session that starts Tuesday, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Friday. He also is mulling a possible constitutional amendment that would ask voters to approve raising the state's 6-cent sales tax by a penny to provide more money for education.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said House Bill 1 would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour over three years and deal with pay equity problems. It would mirror a bill now under consideration in Congress, Stumbo said.
His comments received no support from Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, as the legislature's top two leaders talked to reporters Friday about the upcoming legislative session.
"My initial reaction is that it seems to be a typical ploy of his party," Stivers said of Stumbo's consideration of raising the sales tax. "It's that they just think that throwing money at an issue is the solution."
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Stumbo said the idea to create an "educational excellence fund" is "in its infancy" but could raise $500 million a year for education. He said he did not know if it would be for higher education as well as primary and secondary education.
Stivers also questioned the wisdom of raising the minimum wage.
"I find it interesting that he is talking about increasing the minimum wage when they are not talking about the creation of jobs," Stivers said.
He noted that Kentucky's coal fields have lost 6,000 jobs and asked: "Why raise the wage on a job you don't have? Ask a coal miner who is not mining coal that question."
More than 621,000 Kentuckians hold jobs that pay, on average, less than $10.10 an hour; those workers include home health aides, janitors, cooks, farm workers, cashiers, food servers and child care workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The minimum wage increased in 13 states beginning Thursday, including in Ohio ($7.95) and Missouri ($7.50). All other states bordering Kentucky have a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour except Illinois, where the minimum wage is $8.25 an hour.
Kentucky has not raised the minimum wage since July 1, 2009, and the $7.25 set by the increase has been eroded by inflation in the cost of living, Stumbo said in a letter he sent this week to House members.
Stumbo also said he has heard the "usual cries about costing business too much" to raise the minimum wage, but that national polls show that a majority of small business owners agree that increasing the minimum wage will help the economy.
Raising the minimum wage is among a handful of issues that likely Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes has begun pushing, and it polls consistently well across the commonwealth.
A December survey of likely Kentucky voters by the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 54 percent of respondents said they support raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, compared with 33 percent who opposed the idea and 13 percent who weren't sure.
Stumbo laughed off the suggestion Friday that his legislation might be partially designed to help buoy Grimes. "I wouldn't speculate on that," he said.
Stumbo, who is trying to make sure Democrats retain control of the House in this year's legislative elections, emphasized that Democrats will be speaking out on issues that affect Kentucky's middle-class families.
But Republicans showed Friday they are ready to pounce on and oppose any attempt to raise taxes as they try to gain control of the House for the first time in nearly a century. Democrats now hold a 54-46 majority in the House.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, called Stumbo's proposals an "agenda of higher taxes and a redistribution of wealth through an increase in the state minimum wage."
"This agenda is just more of the Obama-style liberal leadership the Speaker has long supported," Hoover said in a statement. "Democrats see government as the answer to rebuilding our economy. Republicans see creating conditions for employers in the private sector to create and add jobs as our top priority."
Another major issue facing state lawmakers is a proposed constitutional amendment to expand gambling.
Stumbo said the Republican-controlled Senate, which has traditionally opposed expanded gambling, will have to deal with the bill before the House takes any action on the issue.
But Stivers said any proposal to expand gambling should first clear the House, noting that legislative rules require all revenue-producing measures to start in the House.
The 2014 General Assembly starts at noon Tuesday and is scheduled to run through April 15. At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Gov. Steve Beshear will deliver his State of the Commonwealth Address at a joint session of the state House and Senate. The Kentucky Educational Television network plans to televise the speech.