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Birmingham raises minimum wage and Alabama takes it away

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley walks towards the door after speaking during the annual State of the State address at the Capitol, Feb. 2, 2016, in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Brynn Anderson/AP)
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley walks towards the door after speaking during the annual State of the State address at the Capitol, Feb. 2, 2016, in Montgomery, Ala. 

Birmingham, Alabama, raised the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour on Tuesday. Two days later, the state took it away.

Alabama passed a bill Thursday, largely along party lines, that bars cities and counties from raising the minimum wage or requiring employers to provide leave or other benefits. Because the law applies retroactively, it wipes out Birmingham's raise.

Republican legislative leaders fast-tracked the bill in order to pass it before Birmingham’s raise was set to take effect March 1. The GOP enjoys super-majorities in both houses. Within an hour or so of the bill's passage, Gov. Robert Bentley (R) announced he had signed it.

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“Alabama is a poor state. But I say we are poor by choice, because of bills like this that keep people poor,” State Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison (D) said as the measure was being debated.

Alabama currently has no minimum wage of its own, so Birmingham’s largely black low-wage workforce, many of whom work for fast-food outlets, can continue to be paid $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum. Coleman-Madison has proposed a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage statewide to $10 an hour.

Supporters of the state bill said Alabama needs one uniform minimum wage in order to provide simplicity for employers. They also argued that raising the minimum wage leads to job losses. “I can promise you employment will go downhill,” State Sen. Jabo Waggoner (R) said Thursday. In fact, different studies have drawn different conclusions, but an award-winning 2014 book that combined thousands of results from hundreds of studies found that raising the minimum wage has "very modest or no effects on employment, hours, and other labor market outcomes."

Alabama's presidential primary is set for Tuesday, and Hillary Clinton's campaign has denounced the state bill. 

"It's wrong that Alabamians work hard for 40 hours or more each week and could still be unable to make ends meet,” Maya Harris, senior policy adviser for the campaign said last week after the measure was introduced. “So it's disturbing that Alabama Republicans are considering legislation to overrule a local government's actions to require employers in their community to pay their employees a living wage.”

Clinton herself is expected to address the issue when she appears in Birmingham Saturday. She supports raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour.

A "March for Bernie" in support of Bernie Sanders, scheduled for Saturday in Mobile, will rally support for a $15 wage, the level the senator backs.

The Alabama bill is the latest effort by a Republican-controlled state to preempt progressive legislation passed by cities. Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Indiana have already banned local minimum wage increases, and other red states are considering proposals to do so. Wisconsin and other states have banned cities from requiring paid sick leave. After residents of Denton, Texas, voted to ban fracking in the city, the state, pushed by industry lobbyists, banned a broad range of efforts to regulate the oil and gas industry.

To some, these preemption laws pose a threat to local democracy. “If Birmingham's mayor and city council want to raise the minimum wage, that should be their prerogative. And if the citizens there don't like it, then it's up to them to say so, either pressuring City Hall to reverse course or cleaning the place out in the next election,” Kyle Whitmire, a columnist for the Birmingham News, wrote Thursday.

“Birmingham can hold its own accountable," he added, "but that decision shouldn't be made by Montgomery lawmakers.”