Editorial: Bevin right on dignity, wrong on wage

Gov. Matt Bevin surveys the crowd before delivering his inaugural address.
Gov. Matt Bevin surveys the crowd before delivering his inaugural address. AP

Gov. Matt Bevin’s rejection of a higher minimum wage conflicts with his desire to move more Kentuckians into economic self-sufficiency.

It also undermines his push to reduce Medicaid enrollment from the current 1.3 million which he says the state cannot afford.

Next to seasonal firefighters in Eastern Kentucky, the biggest group of minimum-wage earners in state government work at nursing homes for veterans that the state operates in Wilmore, Hazard and near Hopkinsville.

About 125 employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs got raises to $10.10 an hour in June when Gov. Steve Beshear increased the minimum wage for state employees and state contractors. Another 53 employees in the Department for Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities, including at Western State Hospital, got similar raises.

Altogether wages rose for about 800 state workers at a cost of $1.6 million. The new minimum wage for state contractors was to take effect when the contracts came up for renewal.

At the time, Beshear’s office said that, working full-time at $10.10 an hour, a single person with no dependents would earn his or her way out of eligibility for food stamps and Medicaid.

In a flurry of executive orders on Dec. 23, Bevin rescinded Beshear’s wage increase.

State workers whose pay had already increased because of Beshear’s order and were past their probationary periods will keep their higher wages. But new hires and those who had not finished their probation will revert to $7.25 an hour, under the new governor’s order.

Bevin has often said that moving out of dependency into self-support empowers people and gives them dignity. If anyone deserves the dignity of a realistic minimum wage, it’s those who care for our infirm veterans and other vulnerable people. But Kentucky’s 56,000 minimum-wage earners require support from taxpayers and charities just to survive.

During his inauguration, Bevin made a point of honoring veterans. Kentucky’s veterans — and all our elders — deserve to be honored in a more tangible way, by paying their caregivers enough to cover basic living expenses.

A higher minimum wage would ease the strain Medicaid puts on the state budget in several ways. Higher earners would move from traditional Medicaid into the Medicaid expansion. The federal government picks up more of the cost of the expansion. The state will never have to pay more than 10 percent of the expansion’s cost but must pick up about 30 percent of the cost of traditional Medicaid.

Also, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services estimated that if the legislature enacted a statewide $10.10 minimum wage, 13,000 Kentuckians would earn too much to qualify for even expanded Medicaid.

Bevin, a Republican who made a fortune in finance, trotted out the usual objections to a minimum-wage increase, many of which have been discredited in places that raised the wage.

He also said that market demands, not government, should establish wages. But government influences the market in countless ways, direct and indirect. Taxpayers now subsidize low-paying employers by supporting their workers with health care, food stamps and other services.

Bevin is right about the dignity of work. He should translate his rhetoric into action by restoring the minimum-wage increase for state workers. He also should urge Republican lawmakers who have blocked a statewide increase to follow the leads of Louisville and Lexington and raise the minimum wage.