MONTPELIER -- U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy pledged Friday to fight for an increase in the minimum wage, nesting the topic in the broader issue about the discrepancy between the wealthiest in the country and the average wage worker.
"There's no question" about raising minimum wages in Vermont and nationally, Leahy said Friday as he fielded questions regarding agenda items in the statehouse, heating assistance and opiate abuse at a news conference in his Montpelier office. If we lose the sense "that the next generation can be better, then we lose a lot of what this country should be."
"You can't have CEOS making $50 to $100, $200 million a year and have the average worker not making much at all," Leahy said. "Who's going to buy the goods?"
The Democrat said he will fight for an increased minimum wage on the federal level and expects it to be at least $10 an hour. He did not specify a range for Vermont.
Earlier this week, a group of state lawmakers rolled out a "bill of economic rights" including a minimum wage hike and guaranteed paid sick leave. Vermont Rep. Chris Pearson of Burlington said the measures could narrow the income gap. Pearson hoped for a $15 an hour wage. State Rep. Paul Poirier, an independent from Barre, said he would like to see a wage of at least $12.50.
Leahy said he does not know if there's a connection between opiate abuse and income equality in Vermont. He praised Gov. Peter Shumlin for his focus on the issue and said he spoke about the topic with the governor on Friday morning.
Leahy plans on having hearings about opiate abuse and bringing the FBI director, James Comey, to the state. How federal officials help a small, rural and "idyllic" state like Vermont could impact rural America as a whole, Leahy said.
This week, Leahy and the rest of the Vermont congressional delegation announced the state would be receiving $2.5 million more in federal money for heating assistance. Leahy, referencing a winter storm that hit the South, said that "especially after this week," more than the northern tier of states were interested in heating assistance for low-income families.
The seven-term senator also touted another state issue: Lake Champlain. The appropriations bill for the State Department and U.S. foreign assistance, passed on Jan. 17 in the federal omnibus spending bill, included $3 million for continued sea lamprey control programs in the Lake Champlain Basin. About $500,000 is allotted to a study the causes and effects of flooding in the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River watershed.