CHICAGO -- The long-percolating issue of Illinois' minimum wage rate could take center stage throughout the 2014 election campaign as Gov. Pat Quinn pushes to raise it by year's end while his Republican challengers fine-tune arguments that it could backfire on workers who want to keep their jobs.
Quinn wants Illinois to hike its minimum wage from $8.25 per hour to at least $10, an effort that coincides with a national Democratic strategy to make the economy and income differences a prominent theme in this year's elections.
On the other side, a coalition of business groups is ready to oppose those efforts, saying a wage hike pushes employers to cut jobs. One Quinn challenger, Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, already has been criticized for reversing his position on the issue, while all four Republican gubernatorial candidates are set to attend a Feb. 4 Illinois Manufacturers' Association forum, where organizers say the minimum wage will be a main topic.
Roughly 1.1 million people in Illinois make the state minimum wage, meaning a full-time minimum wage worker makes roughly $17,000 annually. Illinois last raised its minimum wage in 2010 through a four-step increase, and the state's rate is the highest among Midwestern states, $1 more than in neighboring Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Experts say the issue will be a tough one for GOP candidates, especially leading up to the March 18 primary. The idea of raising the rate is something the party typically opposes as bad for business, but it's popular with voters.
"Republican candidates ... have to finesse this issue in the primary where they don't alienate primary voters and, at the same time ... leave themselves to appeal to the (general) electorate," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
The candidates detailed their views on the issue in an Associated Press campaign questionnaire. State Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford all say they are against an increase. Rauner said he'd support an increase if the national rate of $7.25 per hour is raised or Illinois makes other business reforms first -- a shift from previous statements in which he'd advocated cutting the state's rate to the national minimum wage and said he was "adamantly" against raising it.
Studies on the impact of raising the minimum wage have been mixed. Traditionally, economists say significantly raising it can lead to job loss as companies struggling to make payroll respond by cutting workers or hours. However, smaller increases typically have little effect.
Business groups don't see any upside. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which represents 20,000 Illinois businesses and is part of a coalition fighting any proposed increase, says raising the rate would kill jobs.