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Democrats in Va. Governor Race Push For Rapid Min Wage Hike

Headshots of Democratic candidates for Virginia governor
Democratic candidates for governor. From top left: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Del. Lee Carter, and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy. 

Virginia is set to see its first minimum wage increase in over a decade on Saturday. But Democratic candidates for governor are vowing to go farther, pushing for a swifter minimum wage increase to $15 an hour as early as 2023. 

Virginians who make the minimum wage will see their hourly rate rise from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour on Saturday in the first increase since 2009. It’s the first of several bumps on the way to $12 an hour in 2023 under legislation passed by Democrats in the General Assembly last year.

All five Democratic candidates for governor say the current pace is too slow. They argue that the provision is essential to helping workers facing financial hardship caused by the pandemic. 

Karen Hult, a professor of political science at Virginia Tech, said the politics of the issue have been complicated by the coronavirus and its effects on both workers and businesses.

“It's been kind of a fraught discussion, but I think on balance there is majority support both in the commonwealth and in the nation for increases in the minimum wage,” Hult said. A fall 2019 poll from Virginia Commonwealth University found that 59% of Virginians surveyed supported a raise to $15 an hour.

Republican candidates for governor haven’t actively campaigned on the issue, but several voiced objections to any increases over concerns it would hurt businesses. NFIB Virginia, a group representing small businesses, called the upcoming hike “devastating,” while another group, Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, argued it would “help build a shared economic recovery.”

The current law calls for the General Assembly to revisit the issue in 2024. Lawmakers could decide to continue a two-step increase to $15 an hour in 2026, and then peg the rate to the Consumer Price Index beginning in 2027. If that fails to pass, the $12 minimum wage would be pegged to the CPI (a common measure of inflation) beginning in 2025.

Both former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Jennifer Carroll Foy have proposed hitting the $15 an hour mark by 2024. State Sen. Jenniffer McClellan (D-Richmond) supports hiking the wage as soon as possible. That’s also the case for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, though his spokesperson, Lauren Burke, said he would be open to exceptions for small businesses. Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) has called for $12 an hour by July of 2022 and $15 an hour in July of 2023, with increases pegged to inflation starting the following year. 

Any accelerated increases would have to make their way through a legislature -- and particularly a state Senate -- that has so far preferred measured increases.

“I think it’s going to be a very difficult move, especially $15 all in one shot,” Hult said.

Two Republican gubernatorial candidates -- Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian) -- voted against the minimum wage bill last year. Cox said in an interview in December that the bill went “way too far.” He reiterated that sentiment in a statement on Wednesday. 

“Virginia small businesses don't need politicians in Richmond telling them how to operate,” Cox said.

A spokesman for another leading candidate, Pete Snyder, said he stood by comments he made in an interview in January.

“My big belief is in the middle of the pandemic, more government regulations are usually not a good idea,” Snyder said at the time.

A spokesman for Glenn Youngkin, another top candidate in the race, did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans will elect nominees at a statewide convention set for May 8, while Democrats will choose their nominee at a June 8 primary.

A report from the Congressional Budget Office on a federal minimum wage increase estimated that it could lift millions of families out of poverty, but could also cause some low-wage workers to become unemployed. The size of that effect remains uncertain.

“Many studies have found little or no effect, but many others have found substantial reductions in employment,” the report says.