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Credit: Larry Johnson, "Denver Skyline at Sunset," December 17, 2009

New West Daily Roundup for Sept. 13, 2016

Today in New West news: studies support proposed Colorado minimum wage hike, U of U aids local manufacturers, and environmental coalition challenges Montana mine permit.

Earlier this year, we reported on opposition by a coalition of Colorado business groups (including the Colorado Restaurant Association and the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry) to a proposed minimum wage hike in the Centennial State. Opponents of the hike have called it “extreme” and argue that it will lead to widespread job loss. The proposal calls for the minimum wage to be raised to $12 an hour by 2020.

Now, according to the Denver Business Journal, a pair of studies from the University of Denver & Colorado Women’s College and the liberal Colorado Fiscal Institute are challenging the coalition’s claims. Indeed, the first argues raising the minimum wage would grow the state’s GDP by $400 million and increase incomes in 20 percent of Colorado households. Further, the study argues job loss would be minimal at best. The CFI study, meanwhile, directly challenges one released for the Colorado Business Roundtable, which argued the state would lose 90,000 jobs, with many coming among the lowest-paid workers. From the Journal:

CFI economist Chris Stiffler argued that the COBRT report chose to highlight only studies that showed significant job losses rather than the large volume of studies showing minimal to no job losses from previous minimum-wage hikes.

Both reports came amid a backdrop of workers and interdenominational faith leaders marching on the state Capitol to present Gov. John Hickenlooper with a “moral declaration” of the need to raise the minimum wage to an even higher level of $15 an hour. But even leaders of that event, who referred to the $12-by-2020 ballot initiative as a good starting point, fought reports that companies might lay off massive numbers of workers if forced to pay a higher bottom-line hourly salary.

“We’ve been hearing that threat every time there is a push or a desire to give people a dignified wage,” said the Rev. Patrick Demmer of Graham Memorial Church of God in Christ in Denver. “Most of that is sabre-rattling and rhetoric. That’s not true.”

Keep Colorado Working, the business-led organization opposing the minimum-wage measure, has referred often to a study from Eric Fruits, president and chief economist of Economics International Corp., that a 44 percent hike from the current minimum wage of $8.31 per hour would force companies to eliminate jobs in order to compensate for higher pay expenditures. Those reduced positions would likely be people in lower-paying positions and younger, lower-skilled workers, Fruits wrote.

Stiffler shot back that the report’s assertion that jobs would move to neighboring states did not stand up to scrutiny because many of the low-paying positions, such as fast-food workers and home-healthcare workers, are not exportable to other areas of the country. And he noted that of 40 data-based studies done on minimum-wage hikes in the U.S. since 2000, 14 showed negative employment effects, 13 indicated there were no effects and 12 had a mixture of positive, negative and no effects.

Plus, Stiffler added, Colorado gained 71,200 jobs in 2007 and 2008 combined, the two years after voters approved an amendment raising the minimum wage from $5.15 and hour to $6.85 per hour.

“That’s a 33 percent increase in one year compared to a 10 percent increase the first year if this passes. And that was not an apocalypse,” Stiffler said. “You’ll probably see some layoffs. I think it will be a little bit harder in rural areas. I also think you’ll see some reduction in hours … But I do not think it will all translate into loss of jobs.”

Over in Utah, a pair of mechanical engineering professors at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City have opened a new center to assist state manufacturers “spur innovation and utilize the latest in technology,” according to Utah Business. The University of Utah Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Center will cater to small and medium-sized manufacturing companies. From Utah Business:

“The goal of the program is to provide these services so businesses can remain competitive against cheap overseas labor and to keep those manufacturing jobs here,” said University of Utah mechanical engineering associate professor Bart Raeymaekers, who along with mechanical engineering professor Bruce Gale are creators of the center and recipients of the grant.

The center, in partnership with other entities and organizations throughout the state, will help local businesses:

• Use data to identify products and markets that are growing and provide resources for the prototyping of new products.

• Implement advanced manufacturing equipment and technology.

• Develop and educate their workforce to use these new technologies.

• Connect with investors and secure government grants to increase funding.

• Learn how to make their operations more efficient to maximize profits.

The University of Utah’s MEP Center will receive funding from the U.S. commerce department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). All told, the center will receive $16 million in funding over the next five years from both federal and state governments as well as local industry. Utah is one of 11 states and Puerto Rico to have received NIST funding this month for local MEP centers.

The first office will open and operate at the SLC campus starting October 1, with a dozen permanent employees, consultants and industry professionals. Satellite offices are planned in Cache and Utah counties; additional consultants will operate in eastern Utah and Cedar City.

Finally, up in Montana, according to the Flathead Beacon, a coalition of environmental groups is challenging a water permit issued for a proposed silver and copper mine near Noxon in northwest Montana. The coalition (including the Clark Fork Coalition, Rock Creek Alliance, Earthworks and the Montana Environmental Information Center, with representation coming from Earthjustice) is challenging the Montana Department of Natural Resources’ decision to issue a water permit for the Hecla Mining Company’s Rock Creek Mine, arguing it would dewater streams in the nearby Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. A formal objection was filed September 6. From the Beacon:

“This permit would give the Rock Creek Mine a free pass to permanently damage wilderness streams that belong to all Montanans and provide cold, clean water for threatened bull trout and other native fish,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien. “Fortunately, Montana law protects our wilderness waters from the degradation the mine would inflict. By challenging DNRC’s proposed decision, we are seeking to hold the agency and the mine accountable to what the law requires.”

But mine officials counter that the proposed Rock Creek Mine has been extensively studied and would not have a detrimental impact on the environment.

ASARCO LLC first proposed building the Rock Creek Mine in the 1980s. The proposed mine was sold to the Sterling Mine Company and then to the Revett Mining Company in the early 2000s, which also owned and operated the Troy Mine. In 2015, Hecla acquired Revett and vowed to push the Rock Creek permitting over the finish line.

If completed, the mine could produce 6 million ounces of silver and 50 million pounds of copper annually.

The U.S. Forest Service first permitted the Rock Creek Mine in 2001, but it was later challenged in court over concerns about the impact to the wilderness above ground. Earlier this year, the Forest Service issued a draft environmental impact statement, and officials expect a record of decision to be issued in 2017. Most of the state permits for the project were issued a decade ago and remain in effect.

Environmentalists have also raised concerns about the cumulative effects of two mines operating under the Cabinets — closer to Libby, Mines Management has spent more than a decade permitting and developing the Montanore Mine, which hasn’t yet opened.

Conservationists like Mary Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance have said in the past that turning the Cabinets area into an industrial zone goes against the core of wilderness protections.

“When Congress designated the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in 1964, it was to protect not only the land, but the vast number of stunning alpine lakes and streams that can be found within its borders,” she said. “To give our precious alpine waters to a mining company would be a travesty.”

Meanwhile, according to the Beacon, shareholders in Mines Management are voting this week whether to sell themselves to Hecla, which would consolidate all of northwest Montana’s proposed mines under one company.

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