Topeka Business lobbyists and some lawmakers on Monday sought to repeal the state minimum wage - already the lowest in the nation at $2.65 per hour - and also recommended prohibiting cities, such as Lawrence, from passing wage ordinances.
Jeff Glendening, a spokesman for the Kansas Chamber, said the free market should determine wages, not the "socialist teachings of Karl Marx."
Ron Hein, legislative counsel for the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said minimum wage laws often hurt those they are intended to help by causing employers to hire fewer people or someone with more qualifications.
But labor and social justice groups said the state minimum wage should be increased to at least the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Congress also is considering increasing the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, which would be the first increase in 10 years.
"Let's take the high road in Kansas and relieve ourselves from the embarrassment of being the lowest minimum wage state," said Andy Sanchez, executive secretary treasurer of the Kansas AFL-CIO.
The state minimum wage applies to employees not covered by the regulations of the federal minimum wage. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 19,000 Kansans earn below the federal minimum wage.
Twenty-eight states have state minimum wage rates higher than the federal minimum. Sixteen states have set their state rate at the federal wage. And these five have no minimum wage: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Of states with a state minimum, only Kansas' is lower than the federal wage.
The Kansas Action Network, a coalition of social justice groups, issued a statement that said without a state minimum wage, "Kansas workers who earn less than the federal minimum will be plunged into even greater economic insecurity."
Commerce co-chairwoman Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, said she wasn't sure what the committee would do with the proposal to eliminate the state minimum wage, which is Senate Bill 71.
"I'll need to visit with the committee and see what they say," Brownlee said.
Hein also recommended that the legislation ban cities from enacting local minimum or living wage ordinances.
A Lawrence group, Grass Roots Action, has proposed a measure that would require businesses in Lawrence to pay wages that would boost workers' salaries above the poverty rate. Lawrence already has an ordinance that requires companies that receive a tax abatement to pay at least $10.38 per hour.
Hein said the local ordinances were a problem for the restaurant and lodging industries.
"There are already enough differing governmental levels of laws and regulations on our industry as well as others without having a third level of legislation in the area of minimum wage or other working conditions," he said.
But Kirk McClure, with Grass Roots Action, said local communities should be allowed to adopt ordinances that address local needs.
"There are times when a community has to take these problems under their own control," said McClure, an associate professor of urban planning at Kansas University.
McClure said concerns of business owners, especially restaurateurs, must be taken into consideration, since their employees earn tips. "We are going to have to adopt some kind of two-tiered strategy," he said.
But, he said, local laws that require more than the federal minimum wage are popular in the United States and help the economy by lifting families out of poverty.