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Thumbs Up For Higher Minimum Wages, And For Marijuana Industry

Fast-food workers and activists demonstrate outside a Chicago McDonald's in July in favor of a higher minimum wage. Illinois voters on Tuesday called on the state Legislature to approve a $10 minimum wage.
Scott Olson
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Fast-food workers and activists demonstrate outside a Chicago McDonald's in July in favor of a higher minimum wage. Illinois voters on Tuesday called on the state Legislature to approve a $10 minimum wage.

Besides electing lawmakers Tuesday, voters settled ballot initiatives affecting everything from soda-pop taxes to fracking to marijuana sales.

The outcomes varied, but there was one economic issue that united voters. Overwhelmingly, they approved raises for minimum-wage workers.

In Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, voters passed binding referendums to raise state minimums above the $7.25 an hour wage level mandated by the federal government. In each of the conservative-leaning states, opposition to wage measures was muted, and victory margins were wide.

In Illinois, voters approved a nonbinding advisory question that calls on the state Legislature to approve a $10 minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage has been unchanged since the depths of the recession in July 2009. Democrats have proposed legislation raising it to $10.10 an hour. Republicans have blocked it.

So unions and community groups have shifted focus from pushing Congress to act and instead have turned to state initiatives. Those referendums have been enormously popular with voters. For example, in Alaska, the wage hike won 69 percent of the vote.

As of January, when higher wages also take effect in Hawaii, Maryland and West Virginia, workers in the majority of states will have hourly earnings above the federal floor.

Alaska's minimum wage will ratchet up to $9.75 by 2016. Arkansas' minimum wage will rise to $8.50 by 2017, Nebraska's to $9 by 2016, and South Dakota's to $8.50 by 2015. An estimated 680,000 minimum-wage workers would get raises if Illinois were to join those four states in increasing minimum pay levels.

In addition, a number of cities and counties in California and Wisconsin also had wage-hike referendums. Those passed too, except for one initiative in Eureka, Calif., to raise the wage to $12 next year.

"People understand that $7.25 is not nearly enough to make ends meet," Christine Owens, director of the National Employment Project Action Fund, said in a statement. "This is a clear mandate for minimum and living wage proponents to soldier on until we have fair wages throughout the country."

The Employment Policies Institute, a group that opposes wage-hike legislation, said the results showed conservative candidates could win in states where wage hikes passed. Michael Saltsman, research director for the organization, said in a statement that candidates "who bucked labor union pressure and expressed skepticism of a higher minimum wage still won last night, which means that acknowledging the economic realities of wage hikes is not a political loser."

Voters also weighed in on other economic matters, including:

  • Berkeley, Calif., approved a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soda in an effort to discourage consumption of sugar. But a soda tax failed in San Francisco, leaving the beverage industry with a split decision in the pair of high-profile votes.
  • In Colorado and Oregon, voters rejected a push to require packaged foods to be so labeled if they contained genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Food and beverage companies say such labeling would drive up grocery costs.
  • The marijuana industry was lifted higher in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia. In Oregon and Alaska, voters agreed to legalize recreational use of pot. In the District of Columbia, possession of up to 2 ounces of pot was made legal.
  • Fracking bans had mixed results. A number of cities and counties tried to prohibit the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for recovering natural gas or oil. In Northern California's San Benito County, voters approved a fracking ban, but a similar measure failed in Santa Barbara County. In Denton, Texas, voters banned fracking, and in Youngstown, Ohio, they rejected a ban for the fourth time.
  • In Massachusetts, voters rejected an effort to keep out resort casinos.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.
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