OPINION: Arizona cannot let student exemption win
Arizona’s vote to raise the state minimum wage from 8 dollars to 12 passed back in 2016 by a wide margin, carrying 58 percent of the statewide vote and with it every county except for Graham County. This level of support for our minimum-wage workers was a surprising wake-up call to our legislators in Phoenix, who have historically kept our state wage within a dollar of the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
The referendum, held the same year that Arizona voted for Donald Trump, saw Arizona join the 10 states in the Union that have led the march to increase the minimum wage to over 10 dollars. Currently, 29 states and D.C. are above the outdated federal wage, which has not been increased since 2009, before the great recession and its ensuing economic turmoil had been fully felt. But Arizona decided it was time to have a living wage that can match the expenses of life and encourage economic mobility.
But while the Arizona voters seemed to be on the same page, the Arizona House was not. In early 2019, the Arizona House Commerce Committee drafted House Bill 2523, which would allow employers to exempt their full time student employees from the minimum wage increase and pay them as little as $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum.
This would essentially be a pay decrease for the 64,000 college students in Tucson alone and would affect areas with large student percentages drastically. Tempe’s population is 44 percent college students, meaning any pay decrease would undercut the local economy and damage the business the Arizona Commerce Committee is hypothetically tasked with protecting.
Even beyond the economics of such a disaster, the real life impact HB2523 would have on students would be catastrophic. Allowing exemptions for businesses against college students is tantamount to punishing students for being full time and encouraging them to be part time students and full time employees.
Arizona is unique in the country for unusually low student debt numbers, almost four thousand less than the national average of $28,000, which many point to as a good sign for the health of our college graduates. But not only is this number still ridiculously high when compared to the debts of university graduates of other countries, such as the average $2,400 debt German students have after graduation, limiting the ability of students to work makes that debt a more insurmountable number.
Punishing students and lowering their wage damages the local economy and hurts students, both short-term and long-term. On top of those very real consequences of House Bill 2523, legal experts denounced it as flagrantly unconstitutional. According to Ken Behringer of the nonpartisan Legislative Council, the Arizona State House’s attempt to lower the minimum wage for certain members of the population was blatantly ignoring and circumventing the 2016 referendum, which goes against the state constitution.
The whole point of the referendum was that it was binding and its language was plain: A “Yes” vote means everyone’s minimum wage goes up — first to 10 dollars and then incrementally up to 12 an hour by 2020 — while a “No” vote means it stays the same. The only thing the State Legislature could interpret from that vote was how to increase the wage between 2016 and 2020; everything else was done for them by the Arizona voters.
And lucky for us, House Bill 2523 was stopped. While it passed in the House and was sent to the Senate to be confirmed, the Senate Commerce Committee added a provision that the bill would have to be passed with a supermajority to become law. As the House is currently divided almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, this essentially kills the bill. While that is much to celebrate, the fact of the matter is we barely escaped having our legislators completely warp the referendum and punish students statewide. With 29 Democrat and 31 Republicans in our house, the vote was 29 against and 31 in favor. State Republicans seem dedicated to denying the results of 2016, even though Arizona voted almost 60 percent in favor of an across the board, no questions asked — no ifs, ands or buts — minimum wage increase.
Arizona Republicans have to learn from the referendum and grow with their constituents; declaring war on students is gambling those students will not pay attention as legislators steal from their paychecks and ignore their votes.
The temporary defeat of this bill is by no means a final victory. It is just a resting point which legislators will use to lick their wounds and wait for the controversy to die down. Once the complacent students look away, the State House will try to repackage the bill and push it through quietly, and it is the job of every Arizonan to not allow it. State Republicans have an obligation to Arizona to be a fair and equitable governing party; we no longer live in a time of safe Republican victories, and the Arizona of tomorrow will be more competitive than in the past.
Alec Scott is a full time student studying Political Science and German who volunteered for the 2014 Ron Barber Congressional Campaign and makes minimum wage working part time at the Union