Ohio Republican proposes $15 minimum wage to avert election problem

The proposal would not raise the minimum wage for tipped workers to $15, which would be the case under a constitutional amendment that could be on the ballot in November

A Republican lawmaker is introducing a bill that would raise Ohio's minimum wage to $15 an hour, an attempt to defeat a November ballot question.

Sen. Bill Blessing, R-Colerain Township, has proposed raising Ohio's minimum wage to $15 an hour by Jan. 1, 2028. However, tipped wages for workers would increase to $7.50 an hour, not $15 – a key difference between his proposal and one from Raise the Wage Ohio, which is collecting signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot bring to.

Blessing knows voters will almost certainly approve a $15-an-hour minimum wage when it's on the ballot in November, but he believes his approach is better for workers and employers. Blessing called ballot language “a very blunt instrument to accomplish what they want to accomplish.”

Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, said Democrats were the ones leading the minimum wage increase and so was interested in having a conversation about supporting struggling workers. Still, everyone should be wary of last-minute efforts by Republicans to try to get around voting problems, she said.

“When lawmakers step in at the last minute in response to a possible ballot initiative, you have to be a little suspicious,” Antonio said.

This is how it would work:

What is the current minimum wage in Ohio?

The current minimum wage in Ohio is $10.45 per hour for non-tipped workers and $5.25 per hour for non-tipped workers. In 2006, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment that tied the state's minimum wage to inflation.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour for non-tipped workers and $2.13 for non-tipped workers, plus tips equal to or greater than the minimum wage.

How would the bill change the minimum wage?

Blessing's Senate Bill 256 would increase the state's minimum wage for non-tipped workers to $15 an hour by January 1, 2028. The minimum wage for tipped workers would rise to $7.50 an hour over those four years. After that, the minimum wage would be linked to inflation.

Antonio said she has “mixed feelings about lower wages for people who have access to tips because it's so difficult to rely on them.”

The bill also includes a refundable earned income tax credit, allowing workers earning less than $63,400 to reduce the amount of their tax liability and sometimes receive a refund. The federal credit ranged from $600 to $7,430 in 2023, depending on family size and income.

Under Blessing's proposal, employees with a child under three would be eligible for 12% of the federal credit and everyone else would be eligible for 9%. If passed, Ohioans would be eligible for a credit between $54 and $892.

Ohio currently has a non-refundable earned income tax credit that is 30% of the value of the federal credit. Because the credit is non-refundable, employees will not receive any money back if the credit exceeds their tax liabilities.

Blessing claims this approach is better because the reimbursement “goes directly to workers without putting Ohio companies at a competitive disadvantage.” He worked on the proposal with the Ohio Restaurant Association, which opposes the ballot measure.

Blessing estimated that this credit would cost Ohio between $200 million and $300 million per year, but he says it is a more effective measure than a quick increase in the minimum wage for all workers. Still, Blessing's fellow Republicans have historically been cautious about passing a refundable earned income tax credit.

“There are concerns within the General Assembly about doing something like this,” Blessing acknowledged. “However, I don’t know if they understand exactly why it is beneficial and why, combined with a modest minimum wage, it can be a very important tool.”

Antonio was shocked that the idea that Democrats have pushed for years would be included in a Republican bill. “Since I’ve been in Parliament, I’ve been trying to get them to pass a refundable earned income tax credit,” she said. “Holy guacamole.”

The Ohio Hospitality and Restaurant Alliance, which opposes the ballot measure, views Blessing's bill as a more gradual approach.

“Eliminating tipping, as proposed in the ballot initiative, would threaten the survival of many small and independent restaurants, particularly those in small towns across Ohio,” said Tod Bowen of the Ohio Restaurant Association.

How is this bill different from the proposed ballot initiative?

The proposed ballot initiative would increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour for both tipped and non-tipped workers.

Non-tipped workers would reach $15 an hour by January 1, 2026, and tipped workers would reach that mark by January 1, 2029. After that, the minimum wage would be tied to inflation.

The proposal is a constitutional amendment that would trump any state law. Raise the Wage Ohio did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blessing said raising the minimum wage so quickly could lead to closed businesses, higher prices for customers and more unemployment, particularly in places like Cincinnati's Hamilton County, which borders Indiana and Kentucky and has lower minimum wages.

Antonio, who supports a $15 minimum wage, said Ohioans shouldn't expect lawmakers to pass an alternative. “At this point, the people working on a ballot initiative should move full steam ahead.”

Raise the Wage Ohio must collect 413,000 valid voter signatures by July 3 for the constitutional amendment to be placed on the November ballot.

Why are Republicans interested in raising the minimum wage now?

So far, efforts to raise the minimum wage in Ohio have come almost entirely from Democrats and have been unsuccessful in the Republican Party-controlled General Assembly.

For example, Senators Kent Smith, D-Euclid, and Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, introduced Senate Bill 146 to increase Ohio's minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years. Blessing is not a co-sponsor of this bill, which has only been heard once.

In 2016, then-Gov. John Kasich signed a law banning cities from raising their minimum wages higher than the state's. Blessing voted for this bill.

Blessing said Republicans were hesitant to embrace a minimum wage increase because of the economic harm it would cause. But the threat of a popular constitutional amendment has forced them to take a second look.

“If you look at minimum wages, they are typically popular,” Blessing said. “If you did a poll on this, you would find that more people don’t support it.”

Leaving the issue on the November ballot could also help Republicans unseat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has pushed for a $15 minimum wage. Brown faces Republican challenger Bernie Moreno, a businessman and political newcomer from Cleveland.

“By default, it would be beneficial for him (Brown) to have it on the ballot because it’s a shared value, I think so,” Antonio said. “So if Republicans want to push back, how about they start talking to the people of the state of Ohio about shared values? How about this instead of focusing on culture wars and things that have nothing to do with the people of Ohio State?”

Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which covers the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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