OMAHA — Nebraska's minimum wage earners are getting a raise.
Voters overwhelmingly supported bumping the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8 hour beginning next year, then to $9 an hour by 2016.
The outcome was clear from the moment the polls closed Tuesday, when the first available results showed early voters favoring the increase by a wide margin.
“Nebraska working families won tonight,” said Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, punching the sky at a Democratic victory party. “Now we can ensure our economy works for all.”
Nearly a sixth of the state's workforce will be affected by the hike, according to supporters of Initiative 425.
Conrad, one of the organizers of the push to raise the minimum wage, has called the eventual $1.75 raise "right-sized" for a state with relatively low cost of living, and said the step-by-step raise is one voters could easily understand and support.
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, another campaign organizer, said the victory is proof that when lawmakers don’t act on a popular issue, “the citizens will take it into their own hands.”
A handful of business groups came out in opposition to the measure, as did the Platte Institute, a conservative think tank co-founded by now Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts. But no group ever registered to officially campaign against raising the minimum wage.
Platte Institute Research Director Dick Clark called it unfortunate that a majority of voters “didn’t look past the talking points to the evidence.”
“I think it will really make things harder” for young workers and those looking to get back into the workforce, Clark said. And because of the effect on businesses, he said, “meaningful tax relief is critical in the 2015 session now more than ever.”
Opponents argued the raise could hurt business and negatively affect Nebraska's economy and employment. They argue it will put the state at a disadvantage compared with its neighbors that follow the federal minimum of $7.25.
Workers in Iowa, Kansas and Wyoming all make the federal minimum wage. The minimums in Colorado and Missouri are higher, and are tied to cost of living. In South Dakota, voters just approved their own statewide minimum wage raise, bumping it to $8.50 an hour next year then indexing it to inflation in subsequent years.
Nationwide, more than half the states have minimum wages that are higher than the federal level. Nebraska and South Dakota joined as many as two other states in boosting their minimum wages through ballot measures this year.
“Hopefully (those votes) will provide a wake-up call to Congress,” Conrad said.
Alaska voters appeared likely to pass a measure to increase the minimum wage there to $9.75 an hour by 2016 and index it to inflation after that. Arkansas voters OK’d a raise to $8.50 by 2017. And in Illinois, voters approved an advisory measure that recommends raising the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2015.
Democrats in each of those states had hoped the popular minimum wage issue would boost voter turnout and benefit their candidates in a handful of hotly contested races.
In Nebraska, after failing to raise the wage through an act of the Legislature, supporters waged a successful petition drive to get the issue onto the ballot.
Since then, proponents of the measure have urged voters to weigh in at the polls, contacting them directly and hitting them with two waves of TV and radio ads as part of a million-dollar campaign.
Conrad said the petition drive gave proponents “incredible positive momentum” and provided a baseline of support for the minimum wage increase.
“That’s a powerful component,” she said.