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Rich Miller: First big test for governor-elect is minimum wage increase

By Rich Miller
updated: 12/12/2018 11:44 AM

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker was asked last week about the timeline for passage of a new minimum wage law.

"That's very important to me," Pritzker said, "It's probably something we'll be able to get done in the first six months in office."

Pritzker had campaigned to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, so he was asked whether he was still on board for that goal.

"Yeah," he said, and then went on a somewhat long, rambling explanation, during which he repeated a talking point about how he wants to make sure that small business "are not ill-affected" by a minimum wage hike and that "large businesses are implementing it in as rapid fashion as we can make happen."

I'm told that Pritzker hopes to shield small businesses from excessive harm to their bottom lines by using some sort of tax relief, including tax credits. The devil is always in the details, including defining what is and isn't a small business, but that'll apparently be part of the upcoming negotiations.

Illinois' current minimum wage is $8.25 per hour. Indiana, which has often made a public spectacle of poaching Illinois businesses, has a $7.25 an hour minimum wage. Chicago's minimum is $12 per hour and will rise to $13 an hour next year. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has claimed an increased minimum wage would attract workers from around the region.

Pritzker also noted that his team has the "various constituents and stakeholders ... at the table. The Illinois Retail Merchants, the entrepreneurs and the labor unions, all at the table."

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association voted earlier this year to not endorse in the governor's race, making it the only major business group which didn't back Gov. Bruce Rauner. That decision came after two meetings between Pritzker and Rob Karr, IRMA's president and CEO. Karr came away impressed, believing that while Pritzker has some very liberal goals, he will negotiate in good faith on how to reach them.

Retailers are very sensitive to labor costs, and Karr was instrumental in convincing House Speaker Michael Madigan to not move forward with a minimum-wage increase bill in 2014. Instead, Madigan pushed through legislation to put a nonbinding referendum on the ballot. It passed overwhelmingly, but the just-elected Rauner had once said he opposed having a minimum wage at all. A minimum wage increase has been on the back burner ever since.

Crain's Chicago Business has referred to the precampaign version of Pritzker as the "unofficial mayor" of Chicago's downtown business community. Not many of those business titans stepped up to endorse Pritzker, but they also didn't rise up in strong opposition to Pritzker or in fervent favor of Rauner. So, there's also a level of trust that Pritzker won't go totally overboard.

The Pritzker folks say they want to negotiate with all stakeholders on numerous issues, with the minimum wage being just one. This is how things were done before Rod Blagojevich, who was a big fan of jamming major ideas through on partisan roll calls.

IRMA has always tried to be an honest and willing negotiator. And its leader, Karr, was reportedly convinced from his two meetings with the then-candidate that once Pritzker made a deal he'd stick with it and pass it, despite any objections from the hard left.

Pritzker will have his work cut out for him in that regard. The head of the legislative Progressive Caucus, Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago), recently threw down an online gauntlet about how Illinois "must not" follow the lead of Colorado Democrats, who after taking over their state's legislature have signaled they'll be more open to negotiations with the business community.

"People elected us because we said we'd make their lives better," Guzzardi wrote. "Raise their wages, provide decent benefits, make college and health care more affordable, etc. We ran on this. We won. And now ... we run away? If so, why vote for us at all?"

And Pritzker will also have to deal with more moderate Democrats on this topic. Those I've spoken with are not necessarily opposed to a minimum-wage increase, but going all the way up to $15 an hour gives them serious pause, even with possible tax credits.

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and