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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Criticized for signing a bill that bans local governments from favoring contractors that pay "livable" wages, Gov. Jon Huntsman has established a task force to study raising the minimum wage.
"Even though I'm a good Republican, I'm a little bit concerned that during the course of (seven) years, we've seen no adjustment in the minimum wage," Huntsman said. "I'm open to some recommendations."
The governor's task force, which will include representatives of the business community and lawmakers, as well as the advocate organizations, is expected to begin meeting by the end of June, task force chairwoman Pamela Atkinson said.
The information now being collected for the task force, she said, includes "the problems being caused by people being on the minimum wage, the number of people who have to work two or three jobs and the cost to taxpayers" for Medicaid and other benefits.
Like many states, Utah has set its minimum wage at the federal rate of $5.15 an hour, and it will be up to lawmakers to decide whether that should go up. Last session, they voted to eliminate a loophole used by Salt Lake City to give preference to companies that pay a living wage of as much as $10.56 an hour when awarding city contracts.
The sponsor of that bill, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said mandating a higher minimum wage "is a two-edged sword" that is likely to hurt those Utahns whom it is intended to help.
"It often will put some people who are standing on the lowest rungs of the American Dream out of work," he said, including teenagers and other newcomers to the job market who may see their positions eliminated or sent elsewhere.
"I want everybody to have the opportunity to work. These kinds of laws put people out of work, particularly those who have the least amount to offer," said Stephenson, the head of the pro-business Utah Taxpayers Association.
Advocates for the state's disadvantaged residents don't expect to see a "living wage" -- enough money to meet the basic needs of a worker and his or her dependents -- in Utah anytime soon. But they say increasing the minimum wage would be a good start to making life better for the working poor.
"We recognize there's probably not the political will to implement a living wage in the state of Utah at this time," Pam Silberman, welfare and work supports policy analyst for Utah Issues, said. "Raising the minimum wage would certainly impact the working poor."
Silberman estimated some 35,000 Utah workers earn the minimum wage. She said the minimum wage would need to go to $7 an hour to give workers the same buying power as the 1968 rate of $1.60 an hour had. That means even a $1.85 hike in the minimum wage would only be keeping pace with inflation.
"The purchasing power of the federal minimum wage has slipped since 1968," she said.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)