State’s minimum wage referendum approved, so now …?

SEIU Minimum Wage Raise supporters at Gov. Pat Quinn's election night party. Janel Forte/Medill
SEIU Minimum Wage Raise supporters at Gov. Pat Quinn’s election night party. Janel Forte/Medill

By Janel Forte

The voters of Illinois have spoken on a hike in the minimum wage. Now what?

In Tuesday’s election, 63 percent of voters responded “yes” to a non-binding referendum question asking whether the minimum wage in Illinois should be raised from $8.25 to $10.00.

But state voters separately made another decision on Tuesday, one that casts a shadow over prospects for the proposal: The state’s most prominent supporter of a higher minimum wage has been Gov. Pat Quinn – the hike was the cornerstone for his re-election campaign – but in a tight race, the Democratic incumbent was ousted by Republican businessman Bruce Rauner.

Now, Quinn is vowing to push the bill through before he leaves office — and some political handicappers predict he’ll be able to pull off such an end run.

Rauner’s position on the minimum wage issue is ambiguous.  Originally, he opposed the proposed raise,  suggesting the current wage be reduced by a dollar to the current national standard of $7.25, or even eliminating it completely.  But in January, he reversed his stance and said he would support raising the Illinois minimum wage, but only in conjunction with reforms other legislation that would “lower the costs on small businesses.”

At a press conference Thursday, the governor-elect did little to clarify his stance, saying he’ll support the hike only as part of a package of what he characterized as financial reforms, including tort-law changes, that would make “Illinois more competitive.”

The minimum wage question has been a hot issue nationwide. In September, Quinn brought the idea to the forefront when he embarked on a challenge in which he lived for a week on the amount available to a minimum wage worker. The gimmick wasn’t enough to keep him in office, but it did draw more attention to the struggle of low-income households.

“The next step for us is to make sure that the Statehouse reacts to the vote and we’re going to be out rallying to make the raise a reality,” said Nathan Ryan, communication and online organizer for Grassroots Collaborative.

In his concession speech Wednesday, Quinn vowed to try to raise the minimum wage before he leaves office.

“One issue that I was very pleased to see yesterday, voted on by the people, loud and clear, was raising the minimum wage in our state,” he said. The state’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour is “not enough for a mom, a dad or anyone to raise a family on,” he added.

“I look forward to working with the legislature in the time I have left to get that done,” he concluded.

Quinn will be in a position to pursue increasing the minimum wage while Democrats still have control over both the General Assembly and governorship during the post-election lame-duck session.

“Minimum wage has enough support, so I think it should go ahead and pass,” said Dick Simpson, political science professor at UIC and former alderman. “It’s obviously probably not how Rauner would have liked to do it, but there are enough Democratic votes for it to pass in the lame-duck session.”

Supporters are optimistic looking forward.

“It’s very bitter sweet, but we are thrilled about the outcome of the minimum wage question that was on the ballot,” said April Verrett, executive vice president of the Illinois branch of the Service Employees International Bureau. “Even with Rauner as governor, you can not ignore the message that the voting people of Illinois sent.”

Opponents to raising the minimum wage say an increase would fall disproportionately on small businesses, who are least able to absorb increases in labor costs, and in turn will decrease employment among low-skilled and younger workers.

“There are so many layers to the minimum wage question, and we have to be careful that we don’t inadvertently hurt the people we are trying to help by raising it,” said Anthony Vasquez, an entrepreneur who works with military and veteran relief groups.

Still, minimum wage hike advocates claim workers are not able to make ends meet and support their families on the current $8.25 hourly wage.

“Minimum wage cuts different angles in society, but people who work need to be able to support themselves and not rely on government assistance,” said Ann Marie Cunningham, leader of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus.

In order for the referendum to move beyond an advisory status, it has to be introduced as a law in the state legislature. Then, if it passes, it goes to the governor for approval.  Quinn’s challenge in his final weeks as governor will be to find  the votes necessary to support the measure.