CHARLESTON, WV -- Most state business owners seem open to a modest increase in the state's minimum wage as long as it is implemented properly, according to the head of the state Chamber of Commerce.
Democrats in the House of Delegates, led by House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Monday they planned to propose a $1 increase in the state minimum wage as part of their legislative agenda this year.
The increase, which would take place in steps over an 18-month period, was part of a broader agenda designed to strengthen families, communities and the state's economy.
President Barack Obama proposed a federal hike in the minimum wage during his State of the Union address last year, but the idea went nowhere in Congress.
While Obama's proposal called for the hourly wage rate to increase to $9 by 2015, local Democrats' proposal would raise the rate to $8.25 by 2016.
Opposition to the wage increase traditionally comes from those who say it will lead to layoffs or cuts in hours for those who work for small businesses.
Steve Roberts, state Chamber of Commerce president, said that while he's heard some of those concerns from state small businesses, the majority seem open to an increase.
"The input we're getting from all around West Virginia is, for the most part, people seem to feel comfortable with a reasonable increase in the minimum wage," Roberts said.
"There are those who are saying, 'Well, our business is barely, barely making it and any increase in cost is going to have some impact on our ability to continue to employ people for the number of hours that we currently employ them,' " he said.
"But we are not finding any sort of large resistance to some sort of potential increase in the minimum wage."
President George W. Bush signed the last increase in the minimum wage into law in 2007. That change increased the wage rate from $5.15 to the current $7.25 in three steps between July 2007 to July 2009.
Roberts said the state Chamber has historically not opposed reasonable increases to the minimum wage when there has been good reason and broad, bipartisan support.
However, he said one of the factors giving some pause this time around is the continued fragile state of the U.S. economy.
"I think we would not be having this conversation if the economy were strong," Roberts said. "I think to some extent we're having this conversation because the economy has not been growing rapidly enough and so people have been struggling at the lower ends."
He said business owners are interested in strengthening lower-income West Virginians, but he said there was also an interest in making sure it's done in a way that's not detrimental to the broader economy.
"It's a careful balancing act between trying to help people in the bottom end of the wage scale and making sure that we don't get to a level that causes an employers to reduce hours," Roberts said.