More and more, cities and states are stepping in to address issues that traditionally would have been the province of the federal government.

Last June, we wrote about the then 170 city mayors who had signed on to carry out the Kyoto Accord, an international environmental agreement that would reduce heat-trapping gas emissions. President George W. Bush stonewalled the accords, so the mayors, both Democrats and Republicans, took matters into their own hands.

Unfortunately, Mayor Willie W. Herenton didn’t join his counterparts in this coalition, but this year, he gets another chance. This time, the issue is wages.

And while the conventional lethargy of the public sector may come to define this issue, too, this time around, state legislators are getting into the act. Several bills are pending in the General Assembly to increase the minimum wage from its national mandatory level of $5.15 to as high as $7.15 as a state mandatory level.

Tennessee is one of only a half dozen states without their own mandatory minimum wage laws, but to this point, only 18 of them have set the amount above $5.15, and unsurprisingly, none of them is in the South. (The 18 states do, however, represent nearly one-half of the U.S. population.)

It has created some unlikely advocates. These include politicians with national profiles – New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D) and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

It seems that while Democrats are working hard to look tougher on national security issues in an effort to blunt Bush’s last issue of strength, Republicans are invading the Democrats’ stronghold by appealing to the working class. Schwarzenegger for example called for a $1 increase in California’s minimum wage to $7.75 an hour, and despite earlier resistance, he even seems to be weakening on indexing increases to inflation.

The National Conference of State Legislatures predicts that the minimum wage will be one this year’s hot issues, and that as many as 30 states will contemplate their own legislation on the minimum wage.

At the national level, business interests have blocked any momentum for a minimum wage increase, although the current amount was set nine years ago. (In the meantime, the Congress has expressed its concern about wages, raising its own salaries seven times.) And with recent reports that the salaries of young workers are declining and that family earnings are headed in the wrong direction, state legislatures are jumping on minimum wage as a powerful populist issue.

Taking a lesson from the Religious Right, which manages to concoct a yearly vote on something dealing with gays to get out their base vote (last year, it was protecting the sanctity of marriage, and this year, it appears to be prohibiting gay adoptions, although we guess lesbian couples will be allowed to keep their own babies), more mainstream political interests are looking to the minimum wage as a GOTV issue for themselves.

The Democratic thinking is that minimum wage is an issue that drives minorities and the poor to the polls. But it seems to drive much more than the Democratic base. A Pew Research Poll reported that almost 90 per cent of Americans support the raising of the national minimum age to $6.45. It’s also worth noting that two years ago, the Florida minimum wage increase was supported at ballot by 71 percent of the voters, running ahead of John Kerry by 23 percent in that sate.

As expected, there is competing research that enables all sides to claim the statistical high ground. Leading the opposition to minimum wage increases is the Employment Policies Institute, whose argument goes something like this: an increase is bad because it attracts higher income teenagers who force out low-skilled adult workers.

If that isn’t enough to suggest a political tin ear, its officials have even said that most Tennesseans who would be helped by a minimum wage live at home, live alone or live with a working spouse.” We can’t quite see why the group finds this such a compelling argument, since it’s a bit reminiscent of those days when women were paid less than men because “he’s got a family to support.”

More tangibly, opponents can make the case that only about 13 percent of the cost of the minimum wage will go to poor families. It’s an attempt to undercut the high moral ground out from under those supporting the increase and suggesting that their motivation isn’t really concern for the working poor. It seems unlikely to have traction because most of us can remember when we were being paid minimum wage or see our children now earning that salary, making it a close to home issue.

Meanwhile, back in Memphis, we continue to grapple with the living wage issue. City Council has dragged its feet on this issue, but like so many issues that dissipate with time, this one is not going away, particularly as long as tax freezes are handed out as casually as they are by city and county governments.

The Living Wage Campaign is calling on the City Council to pay its workers $10 an hour with health insurance or $12 an hour without insurance. In addition, it makes the case that if companies are going to have their property taxes waived, they should at least agree to pay a living wage to their workers in return. The $10 an hour would bring a family of four to the federal poverty level.
The campaign has enlisted no less an authority to their cause than the widely respected economist David Ciscel of University of Memphis. His 1999 white paper, “What Is a Living Wage for Memphis?” articulates the case convincingly and serves as the Bible for the campaign. Also, he is the “truth squad” for the movement, correcting the misstatements by City Hall functionaries fighting the living wage notion.

“The Living Wage is a concept that allows us to measure the level of income required for a family to live independent of monthly public assistance, food stamps, childcare subsidies, and rent subsidies,” Dr. Ciscel wrote in this report. “…The Living Wage assumes a bare-bones budget. It allows for necessities, not luxuries, and it is not the same as traditional poverty thresholds.”

This particularly makes good sense when applied to companies receiving tax freezes. Why should our own local governments waive taxes for companies who pay salaries so low that the local governments then have to increase social and human services to take care of these companies’ workers?

Incredibly, city and county governments have people on their payroll beging paid less than the living wage. In late 2004, there were 226 people in city government paid less than the living wage. When county government contemplated a policy to raise all wages just to the poverty threshold in the late 1990’s, the money was directed instead for “salary adjustments” for higher paid employees.

Memphis city government was silent when so many of its metropolitan peers were signing on to the Kyoto Accord. Let’s hope that on the living wage, it can finally find its voice.