FRANKFORT - The Kentucky Senate's top leader ridiculed a proposed higher minimum wage on Friday as a "small ball" approach to jobs, saying the focus should be on creating more work at the upper end of the wage scale.
Senate President Robert Stivers declined to handicap the proposal's chances in the Senate, one day after the House passed a measure that would gradually raise the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 per hour in July 2016. The bill is a top priority of House Speaker Greg Stumbo.
"Truly to me, that is small ball," said Stivers, R-Manchester, adding that the issue reflects differences between the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-run House.
"Our goal is ... how we create good-paying jobs," Stivers told reporters. "And if they want to keep a very narrow approach of how are we just going to keep minimum-wage jobs around there, that's their prerogative. We want to look at a much broader, more optimistic picture."
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said job growth is a priority of his, too. He said a higher minimum wage would help people struggling to make ends meet at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. He has noted that people working full time for $7.25 an hour make barely more than $15,000 a year before taxes.
"If they want to play partisan politics with the bill, they can do that," he said of Senate opponents. "But they're really hurting people who are not deserving to be hurt. I hope that they'll see the light."
The House vote was divided mostly along partisan lines, with 50 Democrats and four Republicans supporting it, while 42 Republicans and two Democrats voted against it.
During the debate, opponents said the higher minimum wage would force employers to cut jobs and would add millions of dollars of wage costs for financially strapped school districts and local governments. Supporters said the wage increase would help struggling families and pump more money into the economy.
The measure calls for 95-cent increases in three phases until the minimum wage would reach $10.10. The bill was amended in the House to exempt businesses with annual gross receipts of under $500,000.
Nearly 400,000 Kentuckians earn less than $10.10 an hour.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said Friday that government should not have a role in setting private-sector wages. He called the bill in its current form a "job killer," and said the Senate might rewrite the measure to promote job growth.
Thayer said Stumbo's motivations for pushing the higher minimum wage are political as well.
Democratic U.S. Senate front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes is advocating a higher federal minimum wage in her campaign for the seat held by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"I personally believe that this is Greg Stumbo's effort to try to help Alison Lundergan Grimes," Thayer said.
Stumbo said that claim is off base, saying he has not talked to Grimes about the minimum wage bill.
"But if they believe that, they can take the issue away from her by passing the bill," Stumbo said.