Chamber hires KU to study living wage

Policy Research Institute to examine economic effects of proposed ordinance

The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce has commissioned a study on the effects a living wage ordinance would have on the area’s economy, making it likely the City Commission will delay any decision on the issue until late this year.

Jean Milstead, interim CEO for the chamber, said the group had decided to hire Kansas University’s Policy Research Institute to study a living wage proposal.

The proposal would require companies receiving tax abatements to pay their workers a wage that would keep a family of three at least 30 percent above the poverty level. Currently that wage would be $9.53 per hour, plus health benefits.

“We decided to do the study because we wanted to provide people with hard data to study rather than just reacting emotionally to the subject,” Milstead said.

The study is expected to be complete by late fall. City Commissioner Boog Highberger said that made it likely that the City Commission would wait until the study was done before it took up the living wage debate.

“I sense the majority of the commissioners would like to wait on the study,” Highberger said. “I would prefer to move sooner, but I don’t see any real problems in waiting.”

Milstead said the study would look at approximately five college communities that have a living wage and gather economic statistics from the communities to try to determine what, if any, effect the living wage had on the economy.

The study also will survey people who are in the business of helping companies select sites for relocation or expansion projects.

“We want to find out how a living wage changes the external perceptions of a community,” said Steven Maynard-Moody, director of the Policy Research Institute. “It may have no effect, but there is a lot of concern that a living wage is a symbol of an unfavorable business climate.”

The idea of a living wage ordinance has been championed by a group of area residents who formed the Kaw Valley Living Wage Alliance. David Smith, a member of the steering committee of the alliance, expressed skepticism about the report.

“From our standpoint, the more information the better, on one level, but on another level, we have to worry about whether this is just a stalling tactic,” Smith said. “We feel like the case already has been made for a living wage in Lawrence.”

The chamber’s board of directors has never taken an official position on a living wage, but chamber officials have previously expressed concerns that the wage would damage the area’s economy. Milstead said the chamber would not try to influence the outcome of the study.

“We’re taking a risk here because we don’t know what the outcome will be, and we can’t predict it and we can’t influence it,” Milstead said.

Maynard-Moody said the report would be made public, along with the data used to compile the report’s conclusions.