State legislators made noise with their gun control proposals leading up to the 2020 General Assembly session but other issues, including minimum wage, appear to be moving to the front of the line.

On Tuesday, the minimum wage coalition hosted a news conference in Richmond to address several bills aimed at increasing Virginia’s minimum wage starting on July 1.

Democrats have been pushing for minimum wage increases for years, arguing that wages have to go up to meet the demands of increased costs of living.

In a news conference Tuesday laying out his legislative priorities in 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam said it was time for Virginia to treat its employees as well as it has treated its business owners.

“We will treat Virginia workers with dignity by raising the minimum wage,” he said. “There is no way anyone can support themselves, let alone their family on $7.25 an hour.”

Leading up to the 2019 elections, local Republicans were pressed by their opponents on the issue of increasing the minimum wage.

April Moore, D-Harrisonburg, challenged State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, for his seat and touted the benefits of increasing pay for entry-level workers. Though she supported increasing the minimum wage over time, she said she was not in favor of a rapid rise to the popular $15 an hour.

Democrats have pre-filed 12 bills between the House and Senate that will address how Virginia approaches changes to its minimum wage in the coming years. Five of the bills offer steps to increase Virginia’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour up to $15 over the next three to five years.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, said he doesn’t think the Democratic base will be happy with anything less than a $15 minimum wage and will make their ire known if it isn’t achieved soon.

“I think their base wants $15 or more,” Gilbert said. “I’ve seen national Democrats calling for $20.”

“This is the government dictating the value of labor in a particular job or industry,” Gilbert continued. “Not all small business owners can absorb those artificial costs.“

Virginia’s current minimum wage matches the federal minimum wage, along with 11 other states. All states are required to meet either the federal or state minimum wage but cannot pay less than the federal minimum wage.

One bill proposed by Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, proposes wages increase to $9 an hour in 2021 and continue to increase by $2 each year until 2025. Foy’s House Bill 433 is the only bill that proposes a stepped plan that delays the initial increase to 2021 rather than taking effect on July 1.

Newfound control of the government appears to have emboldened Democrats. Similar bills proposed in the previous session, when Republicans still held control, included proposed increases but the initial gains were set at just a 75 cent increase to start. In 2019, Senate Bill 1017 suggested a timeline that would have increased the minimum wage to $11.25 by July 1, 2022.

Half of the proposed bills also introduce a change in the definition of “employer” to include the commonwealth and its subsidiaries.

Legislators also have workers who rely on tips as part of their wages in mind. Three bills propose changes in definitions in the state code governing the minimum wage to include “tipped employee[s]” to include anyone who regularly receives more than $30 a month in tips.

Employers in Virginia are allowed to deduct a tip credit from employees who regularly receive tips, effectively paying them less than the required $7.25 minimum wage. Employees must receive at least $7.25 an hour, including tips. However, the current law does not include a minimum dollar value to assess who a tipped employee is, leaving the discretion to enforce a tip credit up to individual employers.

Gilbert, who has been a long-time defender and proponent of Virginia’s reputation as a place to do business, said he thinks large minimum wage increases will be bad for businesses and, in turn, bad for employees.

“Broadly, I think there’s a legitimate concern that increasing the minimum wage will put pressures on, especially small businesses, that create some unforeseen consequences,” Gilbert said. “Those consequences could very well prove to be counter to the purported objective of raising the minimum wage.”

The General Assembly convenes its 2020 session today.

Contact Max Thornberry at mthornberry@nvdaily.com