During a conference call with state chambers of commerce and business owners, Luntz Global Managing Director David Merritt rattled off results from a survey conducted by the conservative polling firm in late 2015: A significant majority—80 percent—of business owners, presidents, CEOs and other decision makers supported states raising their minimum wages, as well as a host of other issues affecting the workforce.
"So what do these results all have in common? Well, quite frankly, they are all empathetic," Merritt said. "So what we'll try and do is actually give you a few helpful hints on how to actually combat these in your states."
Audio from the conference call and the poll were leaked to the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch project and quickly gained national attention—not only was the rhetoric that minimum wage increases would kill jobs not shared by many business owners, but groups like Luntz Global were seen to be actively trying to undermine that reality.
Closer to home, issues pertaining to Idaho's minimum wage, which is currently pegged at the federal minimum of $7.25, have been hot topics at the Idaho Legislature. According to Idaho Rep. Mat Erpelding (D-Boise), co-author of a bill to raise the Gem State's minimum wage, the battle lines have been drawn between cities and unions that would like to see wages raised, and chambers of commerce calling such initiatives job-killers. For him, a minimum wage increase is inevitable.
"[Opponents are] just buying themselves as much time as possible before they pull the trigger on it," he said.
In 2014, the living wage for a single adult in Idaho was $14.57 and 53 percent of job openings in the Gem State don't pay a living wage, according to a 2015 report by Alliance for a Just Society. In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 5.8 percent of women and 4.4 percent of men in Idaho work minimum-wage jobs. Many, including Erpelding, have said minimum wages were never meant to be living wages, but an Idaho adult would have to work 80 hours per week to make ends meet in the Gem State. Meanwhile, according to a 2016 Pew poll, the buying power of the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968 and, since its most recent increase in 2009, has lost 8.1 percent of its buying power to inflation.
Erpelding's bill stalled in the House Ways and Means Committee. It would have increased Idaho's minimum wage to $8.25 in 2016, $9.25 in 2017 and afterward peg it to the Consumer Price Index. He said stiff resistance to the bill came from business groups like the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Idaho Retailers Association.
After stalling Democrats' measures to increase the state's minimum wage, Republicans in the Idaho House pushed through HB 463, which preempts cities from establishing their own increased minimum wages. During public testimony on the bill, IACI and IRA, voicing their support for the bill, said cities are creatures of the state according to Idaho law, and local measures to raise minimum wages invited costly lawsuits with the state government.
"This will hopefully prevent a local government from testing the waters, creating some policy counter to what's explicitly authorized in the state of Idaho. It's more of a fundamental question of how we're set up as a state," said IACI President Alex LaBeau.
The Luntz Global poll, however, exposes a seeming disconnect between businesses and the associations that represent them before state legislatures. The accompanying conference call and webinar set the talking points surrounding debates about America's workforce during an election year when partisan rhetoric would be likely to draw undue attention.
"Partisan rhetoric in an election year might not be as successful: 'Don't be on the attack mode. Don't deny the policy,'" said CMD author Lisa Graves, who originally reported the Luntz leak.
At 80 percent, however, support among business decision makers for states raising their minimum wages are overwhelming. What shocked Graves was the "receptivity" of Merritt's audience on the conference call—the overwhelming support of chambers of commerce to the idea that raising minimum wages is a bad call.
"It was interesting that there was not objections or questioning, that this can't be true or valid. Or, based on this polling, how they should pivot," Graves said.
Responding to the poll, IRA President Pam Eaton said her organization's membership is "adamant" that free markets be allowed to determine wages and that, according to the same poll, 12 percent of respondents said raising the minimum wage was the economic issue they cared about most, behind creating economic opportunity and reducing the cost of living. Furthermore, she said, raising wages would raise the costs of goods and services, negating the intended effect.
She also pointed out the Luntz poll is more complicated than a single question on raising wages, noting business leaders' resistance to "checkerboard" local minimum wages that pit cities against each other.
"Most businesses welcome statewide regulations over checkerboard regulations and the poll question doesn't dive into that enough to say that that was or wasn't why businesses answered the question that way," Eaton wrote in an email.
LaBeau, also responding to the poll by email, wrote he would not support an increase of Idaho's minimum wage without a corresponding increase in the federal minimum.
"If the states support it and then there is sound economic analysis for it, Congress would most likely act on it. As it stands, I don't see that," he wrote.