May 17, 2017 02:41 PM

Channeling the spirit of workplace reform, the Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations on Wednesday favorably moved two bills by Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans — one to ultimately increase the state’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour and the other to enact a non-discrimination policy for Louisiana employees who identify as LGBTQ.

Senate Bill 153, which was approved for full Senate debate on a 4-2 vote, would increase the state’s minimum wage from the federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25 to $8 an hour starting Jan. 1, 2018, and $8.50 beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

Senate Bill 155 carried 3-1, with committee chairman Neil Riser opposing. It would enact the Louisiana Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would add language to existing law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Carter said the minimum wage has not been increased since 2009, though the cost of goods has continued to rise — some by as much as 35 percent.

Jan Moller, Louisiana Budget Project director, said 42 percent of Louisiana households struggle to meet a “survival budget.” He reported only 10 percent of minimum wage workers are teenagers, two-thirds are women and half are African-American.

Gov. John Bel Edwards in a statement issued Wednesday expressed his support for the measure.

“If we say that family values are critical to our way of life here in Louisiana, it’s time to start valuing the hardworking families who contribute a great deal to our communities.”

“We have a crisis in Louisiana — a crisis of systemic poverty,” said former Rep. Melissa Flournoy, who chairs Louisiana Progress Action and spoke in support of the bill.

While Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, lamented that moving from $7.25 to $8 “really just isn’t enough,” Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City, fumed at a bill supporter who attacked Walmart for not providing its employees a livable income.

“I can’t believe you would single out a corporate company that is very generous,” Peacock said, arguing Walmart is the biggest contributor to the Louisiana Food Bank. Peacock voted against sending the bill to the Senate floor.

Louisiana Association of Business and Industry head Jim Patterson argued the minimum wage is an “entry-level starting wage” and is not intended to be a “living wage.”

Similarly, Dawn Starns of the National Federation of Independent Businesses said it is never a good time to increase the cost of doing business, which she said is what the minimum wage increase implies.

In his closing, Carter chided opponents who said his legislation might cripple the “American system” of free-market capitalism.

“Our ‘American system’ was to build our country on free labor,” Carter said. “We don’t call it slavery anymore, but we might as well.”

Senate Bill 155 proved a much quicker debate, with Dylan Waguespack from Louisiana Trans Advocates testifying on behalf of the proposed act.

Waguespack, who is a transgender male and works in the Capitol, said he had to decide whether he should come out to the lawmakers he saw on a regular basis.

“Nobody should have to leave in fear of being fired because of who they love or who they are,” said Sarah Jane Guidry, director of the Forum for Equality.

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