Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Maryland vote to raise minimum wage should encourage Pennsylvania

I welcome the Maryland legislature’s final approval today of a $1-per-hour increase in the minimum wage in that state. The new minimum rate in Maryland will be $6.15 per hour.Maryland’s Democratic legislature overrode a veto by the Republican governor, so the wage hike will become law there. Maryland is set to join the 18 states nationwide with minimum wages higher than the 9-year-old federal minimum wage. The Maryland law will take effect in 30 days. Pennsylvania should take the cue and be the next.

The Maryland legislature’s affirmative vote to increase the state’s minimum wage to $6.15 will mean that 46.3 percent of the nation’s population is protected by a minimum wage higher than the federal standard.If Pennsylvania would pass one of its minimum wage proposals, which are currently being bottled up by Republican leadership, more than 50 percent of the nation’s population would be protected by a wage higher than the outdated federal rate, which has been eroded by nine years of inflation.

House and Senate Democrats will renew their efforts to increase the state’s minimum wage when the General Assembly returns to Harrisburg later this month. Unlike Maryland, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Edward Rendell strongly supports raising Pennsylvania's minimum wage.With the addition of Maryland, four states bordering Pennsylvania will have minimum wages higher than the federal rate. The others are New Jersey, Delaware and New York. If you would like to learn more our efforts to raise the minimum wage and the need for this change, you can visit my home page at http://www.pahouse.net/cohen/MinimumWage.asp or one of bills I have introduced to raise the minimum wage, H.B. 2021

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Increasing Momentum for Hybrids

Recent news brings more and more news reports of increasing momentum for hybrid vehicles. Toyota has stated that 100% of all of their cars in the future will have hybrid drives and Ford predicted that 50% of their vehicles in five years will have a hybrid option. Domestic and foreign car makers have been issuing press releases annoucing joint projects and intentions to make hybrid vehicles.

Hybrid vehicles and the concept of Plug-in hybrids are a means to an end; less use of oil and a cleaner environment. While car makers seem to tripping over themselves to comit to hybrids, we need cleaner, gas saving cars now, not later. And increasing fuel economy 10% through some versions of hybrid technology is not enough.

That is why plug-in hybrids could be important. They offer the potential of getting 100 miles to the gallon of gas using existing technology and they could make a big difference in reducing pollution and ending our dependency on foreign oil. In every new technology there are obstacles and risks. Building a selling a car is an expensive proposition and offering an automotive warranty is some calculation or way of managing risk. To get car makers to build hybrid plug-ins it make take government action to change the equations for car makers, at least in the short term. These are issues that should be discussed, examined and debated.

To learn more about the potential of this technology, please go to my web site: keystonehybrid.com .

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Arguing for Raising Pennsylvania's Minimum Wage

Pennsylvania Senate Labor and Industry Committee
Tuesday, September 6, 2005
Temple Student Center, Philadelphia

Link to web page established by Rep. Cohen in support of raising the minimum wage

Make no mistake, without state legislative action, the minimum wage is being repealed. It is being repealed by time, inflation and political indifference. Support for the status quo is support for repealing the minimum wage.

I want to thank the Committee Chairman, Senator Scarnati, for holding this hearing in Philadelphia today. I sincerely hope it indicates a willingness on the part of the Senate leadership to consider a meaningful increase in the minimum wage during the legislative session this fall. As I stated in my letter to House and Senate leaders on August 10th, “I do believe that the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, can come to a quick agreement this autumn to pass a significant minimum wage increase in a bi-partisan fashion, if we are given a chance to vote on it.”

While I am sincerely appreciative of this opportunity to appear before this committee as the sponsor of House Bill 257, I do not believe this issue needs extensive and drawn out hearings to further define the issue or delay legislative action. The arguments, pro and con, have not really changed in decades; only the political climate has changed. In the past twenty years the national political climate has mostly worked against low wage workers and their families. But today we have a chance in Pennsylvania.

I believe the votes are there for a significant increase--or more accurately, a restoration of the minimum wage-- if the Senate majority leadership will permit a clean vote. The legislative history on this issue illustrates the importance of the State Senate. In 2001 despite opposition from Governor Ridge, all the House Democrats were joined by a majority of the House Republican Caucus to pass a $1.00 minimum wage increase by an overwhelming vote of 152 to 43. In 1996, a Republican controlled House voted overwhelmingly to support a substantial minimum wage increase. Unfortunately in both cases, the Republican leadership in the Senate refused to consider the wage increases. Today we have a governor who has pledged to sign a minimum wage increase and, I strongly believe, continuing bipartisan support in the House.

Mr. Chairman, your personal leadership and that of your colleagues here is critical to see that there is a full legislative vote on the minimum wage by the General Assembly. The need is great, and legislative action is long overdue. We now have a choice-- to restore the minimum wage or allow it to be repealed. The stakes could not be higher.

Throughout the 1960's and 1970's the minimum wage held a family of three out of poverty. But since the 1980's the minimum wage has ceased to function as a living wage. If the minimum wage at its height in 1968 had been indexed for inflation, it would be just under $8.60 today. The buying power of the minimum wage has fallen to its lowest point since the late 1940s. In 1980, a student could work his or her way through college on a 20 hour week job. Today a 50 hour a week job wouldn’t pay the college bills even if it were possible to do both job and school work (with a share of the blame going to decline in minimum wage and a share to tuition outrunning inflation).

College may be out of reach for minimum wage families but simple living is also. The United States Department of Health and Human Services’ 2005 Poverty Guideline for a family of three is $16,090. A full time minimum wage worker earns only $10,712, assuming he or she works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. That is $5,378 below, or just 66.6% of, that poverty line. A one parent, one child family falls $2,118 below the poverty line for a family of two (or just 83.5%) of $12,830. This is the lowest the minimum wage has been in terms of the poverty line since the inception of the federal poverty guideline in 1966. My legislation, HB 257, would come very close to restoring the minimum wage to its 1980 level as would Senator Tartaglione’s Senate Bill 369. Other proposals at least offer positive steps in that direction.

Some say this should be a federal issue—and I agree. But it does not follow that if the Federal government fails to protect our most vulnerable citizen that we must compound this failure. It is an issue of basic economic justice. The minimum wage was first a state issue in the early 1900s. The New Deal made it a federal issue. The promise of the minimum wage was kept for the decades of the 1960s and 70s, but federal inaction in the 1980s and 90s again made the minimum wage a state issue.

Since the 1980s the federal government has only acted to grant minimum wage increases after substantial pressure from the states—and those increases have not restored the buying power of the minimum wage to its previous levels. Today, 17 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted substantially higher minimum wages than the federal minimum of $5.15. Those states represent nearly 45% of all Americans. It’s past time for Pennsylvania to join these states. States all around us are acting. My legislation to raise our minimum wage to $7.15 by 2007 is intentionally patterned after laws in neighboring New York and New Jersey. Neighboring Delaware has already raised its minimum wage to $6.15—an amount higher than the first step envisioned in my bill. The Maryland legislature recently passed a $6.15 to take effect this month, only to have it vetoed by their Governor. The Maryland legislature is widely expected to override that veto when it returns to session in January.

These surrounding states have acted to value work. The work of our citizens should not be valued less than theirs, and our families and children certainly do not deserve less.

As I mentioned earlier, the arguments have not changed much on this issue over the decades. Some conservatives and business leaders have always opposed the minimum wage for philosophical and economic reasons. They are perfectly happy to allow the minimum wage to be repealed in stages by inflation. We still hear the arguments that increasing the minimum wage will increase unemployment among poor although the evidence has never been very clear on that point. More recent economic work helps explain why the traditional economic expectations of job loss failed to materialize. According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C,

“New economic models that look specifically at low-wage labor markets help explain why there is little evidence of job loss associated with minimum wage increases. These models recognize that employers may be able to absorb some of the costs of a wage increase through higher productivity, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker morale.”

It is common sense that workers who feel treated fairly have a more positive attitude about their work. Conversely, devaluing work often feeds an attitude of “pretend work for pretend pay.”

This year the politically conservative Commonwealth Foundation called minimum wage supporters “the economically ignorant.” In a widely circulated release entitled “Car Wash Blues” they tried to show how the minimum wage would adversely affect a mythical Philadelphia car wash paying 5.15 an hour—one of the problems with their analysis was that the median hourly wage of people employed “cleaning vehicles” in Philadelphia is $8.30 an hour according to May 2004 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) data from the U.S. Department of Labor – already a much higher wage than is envisioned by any legislation.

Bad examples aside, even the Commonwealth Foundation knows, and has occasionally admitted, that classical economists are not united in their opposition to the minimum wage on theoretical job loss grounds, as minimum wage opponents would have you believe. Last October more than 562 prominent economists--including 4 Nobel Prize winners in economics and 7 past presidents of the American Economic Association-- joined in endorsing an increase in the Federal minimum wage to $7.00. In their endorsement, these economists said, ``We believe that a modest increase in the minimum wage would improve the well-being of low-wage workers and would not have the adverse effects that critics have claimed.'' They go on to state: “As economists who are concerned about the problems facing low-wage workers, we believe the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2004's proposed phased-in increase in the federal minimum wage to $7.00 falls well within the range of options where the benefits to the labor market, workers, and the overall economy would be positive.” Reasonable, local minimum wage increases have also found support among economists. Last year 118 economists, many of national prominence, endorsed a Santa Monica, California, living wage referendum that set a minimum wage of $10.50 for the city’s hotel- tourist industry. In short, many economists believe that the positive effects of an increase far outweigh any negative impacts.

Who are the workers that would benefit from a two dollar increase? Using national data the Economic Policy Institute estimates that 5.8% of the national workforce would benefit from a federal increase in the minimum wage to $7.25. (a little more than provided for in my legislation) Of these workers, 72.1% are adults and 60.6% are women. Close to half (43.9%) work full time and another third (34.5%) work between 20 and 34 hours per week. More than one-third (35%) of those workers are parents of children under age 18, including 760,000 single mothers. The average minimum wage worker brings home about half of his or her family's weekly earnings.

Since the state covers more workers than the feds and other factors—such as possibly a higher percentage of minimum wage jobs, and many other states have already covered their employees with a higher minimum wage-- the Pennsylvania numbers are higher. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry reports that 7.9% of the Pennsylvania’s hourly workforce or 257,000 would benefit from a one dollar per hour increase in the state’s minimum wage. 528,000 Pennsylvanians or 16.3% of the state’s hourly workforce would benefit from a two dollar per hour increase in the state’s minimum wage.

House Bill 257, which I have sponsored along with 79 of my House colleagues, would raise the minimum wage by $2.00 in three steps-- $6.00/hr effective 60 days after the passage of the legislation; $6.75/hr effective January 1, 2006; $7.15/hr effective January 1, 2007. After the initial increases, my legislation provides for modest cost of living increases based on the federal consumer price index so that low wage workers will not again suffer form the political indifference that has made this minimum wage struggle so long and difficult. Without a COLA, repeal of the minimum wage by inflation will begin anew the day after it is enacted.

Economists may argue, but as policy makers we must decide if our society truly values work or if it is just a slogan when it comes time to cut welfare benefits. We decry the feminization of poverty even knowing that it is not a coincidence that women are overwhelmingly the most likely caregiver in families with only one supporting parent and 60% of minimum wage workers are women. How can we say we value work when a minimum wage working mother with one child –a family of two— finds that they are thousands of dollars below the poverty line even if childcare and healthcare are affordable and available? What is the value of work if even two full-time workers can not keep a family of five out of poverty? How can we say we value work when a modest one bedroom apartment in Pennsylvania is far out of reach for a full-time minimum wage worker. How do we proclaim the importance of a college or post-secondary education when we know it is out of reach of so many families? The message we are sending is that we don’t value work. According to a Hart Research Poll taken this summer, half of all workers say their income is falling behind. It is time for us to take notice and the minimum wage is a good place to start.

The minimum wage is not a federal issue, it is a fairness issue. This is an issue of simple social justice. As it is bad federal policy to allow a small family with a full-time wage earner working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks out of the year, to live in poverty. It is equally bad state policy. Today's minimum wage is not a living wage and it is not a fair wage for Pennsylvania's families.

Please oppose the overt policy of allowing inflation to repeal the minimum wage over time. I beg you to do all in your power to allow a vote in the Senate to restore the minimum wage in Pennsylvania. This is not a time for delay. The spike in energy costs being experienced by all of us is going to hit low wage workers hardest of all. Low wage workers and their families more than deserve a raise, they desperately need a raise.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Pennsylvania legislation to push plug in hybrids

State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Phila., announced today that he is seeking co-sponsors for three bills he will introduce to promote and increase the use of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in Pennsylvania.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are similar to today’s Toyota Prius and Ford Hybrid Escape, but have larger batteries that can be charged overnight by plugging them in. With plug-in hybrids, the first 20 to 30 miles of driving each day are powered mainly by electricity rather than gasoline. This reduces gas costs for consumers to the equivalent of about $1 per gallon.

“As Pennsylvania drivers face the prospect of paying up to $3 for a gallon of gas this Labor Day weekend, we need to do more to find a better way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil supplies,” Cohen said.

People testing plug-in hybrids have reported getting fuel economy of 100 miles per gallon, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, have the potential to reach fuel economy levels of 250 to 500 miles per gallon when ethanol or other alternative fuels are also used, with fuel economy figures at about 80 to 100 miles per gallon for normal commuting.

Cohen cited a speech by Takehisa Yaegashi, Toyota’s chief engineer for hybrids, who said that computer chips are the heart of a hybrid. Cohen said: “I believe we can use technology to make gasoline engines more efficient and to make electric motors more powerful.”

In one of the first legislative proposals in any state legislature to specifically promote plug-in hybrids, Cohen’s bills would exempt sales taxes on the conversion of existing hybrids to plug-in hybrids, or on the battery portion of a mass produced plug-in hybrid for three years; establish a state task force with representatives from the state Environmental Protection, Transportation and Revenue departments, along with the Public Utility Commission, to examine how this technology can be promoted within the Commonwealth; and a resolution asking car makers with plants in the United States to make, market and sell plug-in hybrids here.

While the cost of additional batteries may be high today, Cohen believes that if Pennsylvania can provide incentives for the broader use of PHEVs and help convince major auto makers to mass produce them, the state’s businesses and residents would benefit.

Companies interested in this technology may be able to apply for grants under Pennsylvania’s Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant program. The application deadline for the program is Oct. 1.

To provide additional information on this issue, Cohen announced the creation of a Web site at www.keystonehybrid.com, and suggested people interested in plug-in hybrids also visit the Web site www.calcars.org to learn about the efforts of a nonprofit group, The California Cars Initiative, to convert and promote an actual plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

“Hybrid owners today are getting real savings at the gas pump, but with plug-in hybrids we could see a person filling a tank once a month.” Cohen said.