Small Biz Lobbyist Hopes Horror Stories Derail Minimum Wage Hike Efforts

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WASHINGTON -- Nelson Litterst is collecting what he describes as "horror stories" unleashed by the U.S. Congress' 1996 decision to increase the minimum wage.

He says they are stories about snack shops, dry cleaners and drugstores that laid off workers because they couldn't afford the 90- cents-an-hour wage boost mandated by Washington.

Litterst, a lobbyist for 600,000 small businesses, says he will use these stories as part of his arsenal of weapons against another drive on Capitol Hill to again raise the minimum wage. "We are going to have people on `Main Street' call their congressmen and let them know what a minimum wage increase has done and could do again," says Litterst, the National Federation of Independent Business' point man on this issue in the House of Representatives. "We are going to put a human face on it." Litterst talks rapid fire in discussing his strategy on behalf of clients, who, on average, have a half dozen employees and rake in less than $350,000 in annual revenue. Yet he slows down when he admits he may be unable to stop President Bill Clinton's popular push to raise the minimum wage another $1 to $6.15 an hour. "I've learned never to be confident about anything in an election year," says Litterst, whose boyish face makes him look younger than his 31 years. "Anything can happen." Congressional Democrats plan to host a forum on Capitol Hill today to promote another increase in the minimum wage and formally introduce legislation to do it. Public opinion polls show a large majority of Americans back another minimum-wage increase. And the jobless rate in the past year, thanks to a strong economy, has fallen to its lowest level in a generation, 4.6 percent, mitigating any loss of entry level jobs due to the minimum wage. "We raised the minimum wage once in this Congress and we can do it again, and the economy can support it," Clinton declared last month in proposing to boost it another buck. Litterst knows better than to be overconfident. In 1996, with pro- business Republicans in control of Congress for the first time in four decades, the business community figured there wouldn't be a minimum wage increase. Wrong. Democrats, backed up by a multimillion dollar AFL-CIO radio-and- television campaign, pressured Republicans up for re-election to turn their backs on business. "Members told me, `Sorry, I've got to do it,'" Litterst recalls. "We got blind sided ... and didn't have time to mount an effective grass-roots counter offensive." Litterst vows to put up a better fight this time. He's again joined forces with a coalition of business groups, which include the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Convenience Stores, and the U. …

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