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State pols unlikely to rise to occasion on minimum wage this year

Nearly 78 percent of those voting last month in state Rep. Mike Zalewski’s suburban legislative district cast ballots in favor of raising the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour.

But as a minimum wage proposal is considered by the Illinois House this week, Zalewski (D-Riverside) is among many Democratic legislators whose support is far from certain.

Zalewski said he prefers a uniform minimum wage hike across the state, which will become less likely Tuesday if Chicago aldermen, as expected, endorse Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans for a $13-an-hour city minimum wage.

Despite two-thirds of Illinois voters endorsing a minimum wage increase, despite Democratic candidates making it a central focus of their 2014 election strategy and despite Democrats holding super-majorities in both legislative chambers, there remains a strong possibility lawmakers this year will leave untouched the state’s $8.25 an hour minimum wage.

For those hard-pressed to understand how that could be, some guidance can be found in the example of Zalewski, who insists he favors a minimum wage increase, too.

“We all want to see a higher minimum wage,” he said.

But Zalewski said he doesn’t see the wisdom of allowing the city of Chicago to have its own separate minimum wage that is higher than the rest of the state.

His main argument is that minimum wage employers in the city will gain an unfair hiring advantage over minimum wage employers in the suburbs.

“They’ll attract all the talent. Everybody will want to work for them,” Zalewski said, arguing this could make it especially tough for restaurants and other small businesses in communities he represents on the city’s border, such as Cicero and Berwyn.

“What’s the rationale” for Chicago having its own minimum wage, Zalewski asked.

I believe the rationale is that city officials believe workers deserve a higher minimum wage than what the state is proposing and that the city can withstand the risks of businesses locating elsewhere.

Most people arguing against a separate city minimum wage are coming at it from that end — that it will hurt city employers by increasing their labor costs above suburban competitors.

It was with this in mind that some lawmakers have been pushing to insert language in any state minimum wage increase legislation to pre-empt home rule units of government such as Chicago from setting their own wage floor.