SPRINGFIELD -- With Illinois Democrats struggling to find enough votes to increase the state's minimum wage, some lawmakers are quietly proposing a less-contentious plan that would ask voters what they think of the idea before the Legislature tries to pass a politically risky bill.
But state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who is sponsoring the proposal to hike the minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.65 per hour, says putting a nonbinding resolution on the November ballot would only be a "last resort." Some Democrats in swing suburban and downstate districts have joined Republicans in resisting the effort amid fears that companies would lay off workers or hire fewer new ones.
"We just need 30 votes at the end at the day. That's what we seemingly don't have right now," Lightford said.
The Legislature has moved slowly on approving the minimum wage increase, even though Gov. Pat Quinn and other Democrats have made it a core component of their campaign to keep the governor's mansion and pick up congressional seats in Illinois and across the country.
But not all Democrats in the Legislature are on board with their party's campaign priority.
State Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat, told a group of Quincy business leaders earlier this month that he's "gotten some flack" over his opposition to the legislation, which he says could send businesses to neighboring states with lower minimum wages.
"Unemployment hasn't come down the way I think it should in Illinois, and I don't think (higher minimum wage) is going to help move that agenda forward," Sullivan said. "I'm conflicted on it. It's a tough issue. But given the current situation, that's why I wouldn't support it."
John Jackson, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, said although increasing the minimum wage makes sense as a talking point for Democrats on the state and national levels, "I haven't heard a heard a single (southern Illinois) area legislator salute the idea."
Meanwhile, Republicans remain unified in their opposition to an increase, saying an across-the-board wage hike pushes employers to cut jobs. State Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, who is bidding to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, has introduced a proposal that would hike the state's minimum wage only for those 26 or older.
Quinn's Republican challenger, Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, has moved from "adamantly, adamantly" opposing an increase to outlining a scenario in which he could favor an increase in the wage, so long as it was paired with a series of business-friendly reforms.
After being pulled from consideration during committee three times this spring, the Senate Executive Committee approved a minimum wage increase late last month and is awaiting a floor vote.
Speaker Michael Madigan said this week that he's still actively working the roll call in his chamber, where 60 votes are needed to pass the bill before the May 31 adjournment deadline.
"Once we get to 60 (votes needed to pass), we'll be prepared to call the bill," Madigan told reporters in Springfield.
Although Quinn has loudly called for an increase on the campaign trail, Lightford said it has been months since the governor met with her on the issue.
In a statement, Quinn's spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, said the governor "believes that 2014 is the year to get this done. We continue to work with legislators to raise Illinois' minimum wage. This is one of the Governor's top priorities and he has consistently stated his goal to get it done this year. Building a majority is necessary to pass this legislation and we are working with key leaders, legislators and advocates on this."
Even if the initiative isn't passed, Jackson said, it wouldn't be "an embarrassment" to Democrats. A referendum could enhance other efforts by Madigan, the state Democratic party chairman, to lure Democratic voters to the polls, including a constitutional amendment that would bar the Legislature from enacting additional voting requirements, Jackson said.
"I think they'll be quite all right," he said. "The Democrats have just got to get out both statewide and nationally to reach more low income voters and minorities. They really need to mobilize the base."