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June 20, 2014

Wage debate pits cities against states

ALBANY, N.Y. — Dominique Mayfield makes $8.25 an hour washing dishes and busing tables at a Syracuse brewpub. Shantel Walker makes $8.50 an hour at her pizzeria in New York City, where the rent is more than double what it is in Syracuse. Two very different cities, but nearly the same wage.

The economic differences between America’s big cities and elsewhere have prompted leaders in Seattle, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Oklahoma City and other cities to push to raise the minimum wage within their borders.

The efforts are running into opposition from state lawmakers from both parties and business groups who say a patchwork of minimum wages could lead to a confusing and unequal business climate in which labor costs would vary dramatically from city to city.

The minimum wage has emerged as perhaps the top issue of a newly emboldened, urban liberal movement that in many places is led not by governors or state lawmakers, but by local leaders backed by organized fast-food workers. After years of grappling with state and federal budget cuts, mayors and city councils are pushing back against state and federal officials who they say don’t understand the income inequality of 21st-century American cities.

“So many people have been pushed out of this city,” said Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, who successfully pushed to raise the city’s wage to $15, more than $5 higher than the state wage. “Local politicians don’t have the luxury of not doing something. The state and federal governments, they’ve been AWOL. They haven’t been engaged.”

The fight to raise minimum wages has lawmakers in many states on the defensive, arguing that higher wages will lead to reductions in hours and jobs for low-income workers — and retail price increases that are likely to hit them hardest. The business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council argues that local minimum wages could lead to a race to the bottom, where businesses locate in whatever city within a region has the lowest starting wage.

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