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This New Year rings in another 15 cents. On January 1, Montana’s minimum wage goes up from $7.90 to $8.05 an hour. I propose a toast however, not to 15 cents, but to a 15-dollar-an-hour minimum wage in Montana.

A "Fight for 15" movement is spreading across the country. It’s a campaign to pay folks a living wage. It means paying full-time workers enough to afford basic necessities, like food, shelter and health care, and maybe even a little to put aside for that unforeseen, often inevitable emergency.

In Montana, a living wage is $14.40 for a single person and goes up for families with kids. Many Montanans earn just a fraction of a living wage, working hard all day, yet struggling to make ends meet. One woman I talked with, who lives in pain every day, earns $300 a week at a daycare center caring for our children. She has to choose between gas for work and health care for her pain. A couple works several jobs between them to support their children, one child with a disability. Another woman is falling behind every month caring for her family. She choked back tears and said life’s hard. A living wage would make life easier for these Montanans, and lift them and countless others out of poverty.

That’s why, along with others, I am working on a living wage bill to introduce in the 2015 legislative session. The bill would phase in a $15 minimum wage over time, and like current law does, sustainably index the wage to inflation. The phase-in would be gradual, incremental, yet powerful. No business would take a big hit at once. Businesses that employ fewer than 50 people full time could be exempt initially. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that’s 97 percent of Montana businesses – the ones that drive our Main Streets, grow our crops and innovate for the future. Those small businesses would have time to plan and take advantage of potential state incentives. At first, the phase-in to $15 would target the 3 percent of Montana businesses that employ more than 50 workers and can best afford it. Frankly, many of those companies grow wealthy off the backs of their substandard-wage workers. More than 359,700 Montanans work for private businesses in Montana. Half of those folks work for the 3 percent bigger companies. The other half work for the remaining 97 percent small businesses.

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Here are some upsides. If businesses double wages, they benefit from a rise in business tax deductions. The state sees increased income tax revenue. Folks have more money for things they’ve been putting off, like repairing or buying a new washer or dryer. More money gets circulated and multiplied through our economy. More money flows into Social Security and retirement pools. Waiting lists for public assistance shrink. When we invest in people – our Treasure State’s true treasure – our families and communities thrive, and our Main Streets and great state prosper.

A living wage isn’t a new idea. President Franklin Roosevelt appealed for living wages during the Great Depression. “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for,” said FDR. Eighty years later, it’s still all too true. Work is meaningful and dignifying. Working women and men deserve meaningful and dignifying compensation. This New Year, let’s support living wage legislation and resolve to work for something not just to live by, but to live for.

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Rep.-elect Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, represents House District 84. Reach her at (406) 461-5358 or rep.maryann.dunwell@mt.gov.

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