Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele backs an increase in Wisconsin’s minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
But he thinks it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to ask Milwaukee County voters whether they agree.
The County Board voted 13-4 on June 26, 2014 to place a non-binding referendum question on the Nov. 4 ballot to gauge support for the state to enact a $10.10 minimum wage.
Some board members say a referendum will drum up support for that level at the state and federal levels. Critics say the referendum is aimed more at driving up turnout on the left in order to help Democrats running in November.
Days before the County Board vote, Abele was lobbying supervisors against the move, saying that, when combined with three other referenda, it could cost the county $75,000 to $120,000 in administrative costs.
In a June 24, 2014 email and letter posted the next day on Facebook, Abele wrote:
"I am worried that we are spending much needed tax dollars on a question that we already know the outcome. One poll conducted by UWM earlier this month shows broad support for raising the minimum wage."
According to that poll, Abele wrote, "76% of registered voters support raising the state’s minimum wage. That poll is another strong indicator of what citizens think and it does not require us to dip into our emergency fund to pay for it."
Statewide polls, including the one Abele cited, clearly have shown broad support for some increase in the minimum wage.
But what do these survey say specifically about $10.10, and about the opinions of Milwaukee County residents?
To the numbers
As one piece of backup, Abele cited the UWM Wisconsin Economic Scorecard poll, which found the 76 percent statewide figure. And he pointed us to a Marquette Law School poll in March that found 63 percent support statewide for the general notion of an increase, vs. 33 percent opposed.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee poll was conducted by the university’s Center for Urban Initiatives & Research from June 2 to June 5 with a statewide sample of 569 registered voters. It also polled on the issue in March 2014.
The Marquette Law School polls on the issue were conducted in January and March 2014, also among registered voters.
There is a strong suggestion in the June UWM statewide poll result that a strong majority of Milwaukee County residents would back some increase.
A raise won support from 61 percent of Republicans statewide, 70 percent of independents and 94 percent of Democrats. Milwaukee County tilts strongly Democratic.
Still, the results Abele references from those polls weren’t specific to $10.10, or to Milwaukee County.
Peeling back the layers
So let’s peel back a few layers in those and a couple other polls to get to the core.
More than three-quarters of Milwaukee County respondents (77 percent) backed some bump in the wage in the UWM June poll, according to Joseph Cera, survey center director at UWM. The margin of error for the county subsample is 10.7 percent.
In the MU poll, 69 percent in Milwaukee County supported an unspecified raise. The margin of error there was 6.2 percent.
And here’s the key finding:
Among Milwaukee County respondents, the March UWM poll found that 56 percent of registered voters would support a state minimum wage of $10.10, according to Cera.
The margin of error is large (11.6 percent), however, due to a small sample size.
That result mirrors the statewide picture. In the March UWM poll, 57 percent supported $10.10 when asked specifically about that amount.
We found two polling questions that asked about increases in the minimum wage within certain ranges.
In June, the UWM survey asked an open-ended question asking what the minimum wage should be. The answers were reported in 25-cent groupings.
Among Milwaukee County respondents, the single most common was in the $9.76-$10.00 range; the median response for Milwaukee County fell in the $9.26-$9.50 range.
Here’s the breakdown for Milwaukee County:
-- 44.5 percent said $9.76-10.01, or higher (including 17.1 percent over $11.00)
-- 35.4 percent said $8.01 to $9.75
-- 6.9 percent said $7.26 to $8.00
--12.6 percent said $7.25 or less
A January MU poll showed a similar result for Milwaukee County: 49 percent want an increase of about $10 or more.
While those results show a big majority for a sizeable boost in the wage, they don’t suggest a majority for $10.10.
How is it that 56 percent supported $10.10 in one UWM poll, but in another UWM poll and in the MU poll, when asked to pick the ideal increase, less than 50 percent chose the $10 or higher range?
Cera wasn’t surprised at the apparent contradiction.
Many of those who ideally would want an increase to something less than $10.10 still back $10.10 when that is the only option presented, Cera said.
That, of course, is the situation in the referendum question, so the March UWM poll result is instructive, Cera said.
Cera told us that as a statistician, his conclusion is that it’s very likely a majority of Milwaukee County voters would support $10.10.
He offered an additional caveat beyond the large margin of error: A referendum is not a survey.
Election turnout can vary depending on the intensity of races on the ballot. It can also skew to wealthier residents, who might be less inclined to favor a large bump in the wage.
That could slightly bring down the numbers in favor of $10.10 when voters cast ballots on the question, Cera said.
Abele said a statewide poll showing 76% support for a minimum wage hike is a "strong indicator," along with other surveys, of deep public support in Milwaukee County for a $10.10 wage.
The poll number he cites is out of context because it’s a statewide result and didn’t refer specifically to $10.10. If given a choice to set the wage wherever they want it, a majority might not back $10.10, two polls of county residents show.
But there’s some survey evidence that in a referendum specifically on $10.10, a solid majority in Milwaukee County would back that idea. Foolproof conclusions can’t be drawn because of the small size of the sample at the county level.
On balance, we rate Abele’s claim Half True.