ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democrats who control Minnesota’s Legislature are planning a major push in the upcoming session for a package of bills aimed at breaking down what they say are continued barriers to economic success for women.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, unveiled the initiative Thursday at the Women’s Economic Security Summit in St. Paul. He promised an attempt to pass nearly 20 bills aimed at reducing wage disparities between men and women, preventing workplace discrimination, providing more affordable child care and cracking down on domestic violence. Thissen echoed President Barack Obama, who highlighted many of the same issues this week in his State of the Union speech.
“When women succeed in Minnesota, Minnesota succeeds,” Thissen said. “That’s what we’re focused on here.”
By taking on these issues, Democrats are playing up what’s seen as their growing advantage over Republicans among female voters. Thissen said the legislation, dubbed “The Women’s Economic Security Act,” would be one of Democrats’ top priorities in the session that starts Feb. 25.
Rep. Jenifer Loon, the deputy Republican leader in the House, said her party acknowledges challenges facing women in the workforce. She said she expected bipartisan support for some parts of the agenda but predicted Republicans would take issue with other aspects — such as the plan by House Democrats to raise the state’s minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $9.50.
“While we all want to see low-wage workers have an opportunity to improve their economic status, we do know whenever there is a required boost in the minimum wage that there are some job losses,” said Loon, of Eden Prairie. “We need to be mindful in our efforts to help low-wage workers. Are we harming or eliminating opportunities for women who are at that lower rung of the ladder?”
A study by the University of Minnesota’s Center on Women and Public Policy at the Humphrey Institute, unveiled at the summit, found that while women make up 50 percent of Minnesota’s workforce, they account for 58 percent of workers who earn less than $9.50 an hour. The report also found women lagging in a number of other economic measures. It noted that families headed by women are four times more likely to be living in poverty and that women earn a median pay of 80 percent of what men make in the state, a split that grows even wider in rural areas and among nonwhite populations.
Other highlights of the Democratic checklist include:
— Requiring private businesses in the state to report on male-female pay equity in their workforce.
— Boosting state child care subsidies in order to shrink a current waiting list of some 8,000 eligible families and increasing reimbursement rates for child care providers in the program.
— Expanding family and sick leave provisions in state law.
— Preventing employers from discriminating against women with children or other family caregiver responsibilities in decisions about hiring, firing, promotion or compensation.
— Allowing victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking to use paid leave to obtain services.
— Adding incentives within state workforce programs to integrate women into high-skill, high-wage, nontraditional jobs.
The chief sponsors will be Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, in the House, and Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, in the Senate.
Thissen said the biggest price tag would come with the effort to expand child care, though he said it wasn’t yet clear how much that would cost. The state has an estimated $1 billion budget surplus headed into the next session, and Thissen signaled that Democrats would be willing to use some of it for these newly unveiled initiatives.
“It’s a really great time to start thinking a little bit longer term about the issues we have, and maybe start imagining what our future can be in a way we haven’t been able to do in the last decade,” Thissen said.
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