SPRINGFIELD – Weeks after it became clear Illinois Democrats were struggling to find the necessary votes for legislation to increase the state's minimum wage, House Speaker Michael Madigan began advancing the issue by another route, in a move laced with political calculation.
A plan to put a nonbinding question on the November ballot asking voters whether the state should increase the wage from its current $8.25 to $10 an hour in January was approved by a House revenue panel by a 12-7 vote along party lines Friday morning.
If the measure makes it on the ballot and is approved by voters, it could help sway Democrats in swing suburban and downstate districts who have so far joined Republicans in resisting the push for the increase. A ballot initiative also could advance an election year campaign by President Barack Obama and national Democrats to stress income inequality and draw more voters to the polls.
"A solid positive vote will be a big help in passing the vote [here]," Madigan told reporters following the committee meeting.
Madigan, who is also Illinois Democratic party chairman, noted "differences of opinion" among members Friday when he presented the proposal.
"I believe this merits a statewide discussion," he said. "It's clear we need to be doing more to reduce economic inequality."
Gov. Pat Quinn and national Democrats face a tough election year with voters worried about the economy and concerned about how Obama's signature health reform law has been implemented. Quinn is in a close race for re-election against wealthy Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, and Democrats are looking for ways to encourage more liberal voters to cast ballots in a midterm election, when turnout typically falls.
Republicans on the committee peppered Madigan with questions on the measure Friday, which they say could kill job growth in the state.
"There is a safety net already in place and I personally think this is anti-business," said state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Wheaton Republican.
Rauner has flip-flopped on the minimum wage issue, first saying he was "adamantly" opposed to an increase but now calling for it to be raised if it's paired with business reforms.
The ballot question could also help Democrats blunt Rauner's own ballot initiative, which would ask voters whether the state constitution should be amended to limit the terms of lawmakers to eight years. Madigan has been speaker for nearly 30 years, with the exception of two years when Republicans held the majority in the Legislature.
The measure now heads to the full House.
The measure is HB3814