LINCOLN — Nebraska voters likely will have a chance to vote on a “kitchen table economic” issue in November.
Backers of a petition drive to raise the state’s minimum wage turned in 134,899 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office for verification Thursday.
The total means the drive has at least a 60 percent cushion, despite collecting signatures over only seven weeks.
“This is truly a historic victory for all hardworking Nebraskans and a historic victory for all Nebraskans who value an economy that works for everyone,” said State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a sponsor of the initiative.
Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, who coordinated the drive, said the response shows Nebraskans want to vote on the issue. She expressed confidence that the measure will pass if it makes the ballot.
“This is a fantastic head start as we prepare for the general election,” she said. “We’re talking about kitchen table economics right here. Every single Nebraskan understands these struggles, whether in their own home or across the street.”
But some Nebraskans argue that raising the minimum wage would do more harm than good by raising costs to businesses and potentially causing job losses.
If passed, the proposal would push the state minimum wage to $9 per hour in two steps. It would raise the minimum wage to $8 an hour for 2015, with the next step kicking in on Jan. 1, 2016.
Nebraska’s current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal minimum wage. The state minimum wage last increased in 2009.
To make the November ballot, the petition needs valid signatures from 7 percent of registered Nebraska voters, or about 83,000 people. The exact target will be based on voter registration as of 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The total must include at least 5 percent of registered voters from each of 38 counties, or two-fifths of Nebraska’s 93 counties.
Organizers said they have signatures from all 93 counties and have reached the threshold in more than the required number of counties.
County officials will begin checking the signatures against voter registration rolls next week. Verification could take until mid-August, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Advocates launched the petition drive after a proposal to raise the minimum wage died in the Legislature this spring.
The drive has backing from some of the state’s wealthiest residents, including Omaha philanthropist Richard Holland, as well as from labor unions and from groups advocating for the poor.
Chuck Hassebrook, the Democratic candidate for governor, was among those gathered for the press conference announcing the signature totals.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Pete Ricketts, opposes a minimum wage hike.
The legislative bill faced opposition from some business groups and from the Platte Institute, an Omaha-based free-market think tank founded and led for a time by Ricketts.
Jim Vokal, the Platte Institute’s executive director, said Thursday that he doesn’t know if there will be an organized campaign against the measure.
But he said the institute will work to get out information about the detrimental effects of raising the minimum wage.
He said an increase would hurt small business owners by raising their costs and hurt low-wage workers by curbing job growth and business investment in training. Some businesses also may look to automation as costs rise, he said.
“It’s an economic cause and effect that has happened and will be shown to happen,” Vokal said.
Omaha attorney Steve Seline, president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said chambers of commerce in the state may work together to tell voters why Nebraska voters should not increase the state’s minimum wage.
The Omaha chamber’s position is that the way to increase people’s incomes is to boost workers’ skills so they qualify for higher-paying jobs, he said.
Raising the minimum wage may cause price increases that disproportionately affect lower-income people, Seline said. For example, a high-end restaurant would be less likely to raise prices than a fast-food restaurant.
Not all business groups may be on board, however.
Barry Kennedy, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he has heard no concerns about the proposal from any members.
In general, he said the state chamber believes that the state minimum wage should mirror the federal one. But he said he thinks chamber members already pay above the minimum wage.
“It just isn’t anything that causes us great heartburn,” Kennedy said.
The Nebraska Restaurant Association, although it opposed the minimum wage bill, has not taken a position yet on the petition drive, said Jim Partington, the association’s executive director.
Petition backers argued that a higher minimum wage would strengthen the state’s economy by putting more money in consumers’ pockets.
Sen. Conrad said the money creates jobs by boosting demand. She said it also reduces the number of families needing public benefits to get by.
The federal minimum applies to businesses with gross incomes of more than $500,000 a year, those that do business across state lines, hospitals, schools and some others. The state minimum wage applies to businesses with four or more employees.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 3.3 million American workers in 2013 were paid at or below the federal minimum wage, including about 29,000 Nebraska workers.
Nationally, food service and retail sales jobs account for more than half the workers earning minimum wage.
Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and three-quarters are age 20 or older.
As of last month, 22 states had minimum wages above the federal minimum, including the bordering states of Colorado and Missouri.
The petition proposes a new state law. If passed, the law could be repealed or changed only with the votes of 30 of the 49 lawmakers.
If enough signatures are verified, this would be the first petition initiative to be put to voters since 2008. The last one to make the ballot was a constitutional amendment dealing with affirmative action.