WASHINGTON -- After President Barack Obama suggested raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour in his State of the Union speech, rising Republican star Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) quickly joined other prominent GOP lawmakers in denouncing the proposal as bad policy.
"I want people to make a lot more than $9," Rubio said Wednesday. "Nine dollars is not enough. The problem is that you can't do that by mandating it in the minimum wage laws. Minimum wage laws have never worked in terms of helping the middle class attain more prosperity."
"I don't think a minimum wage law works," he said flatly.
Rubio's criticism went a good deal further than that of many other skeptics. He didn't say it was merely a bad time to raise the minimum wage, given the sluggish economy -- he suggested minimum wage laws themselves are inherently foolish.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant clarified that the senator believes in the minimum wage as a baseline protection, but not as a means to upward mobility.
"Minimum wages are designed to protect workers, and he supports having them to do that," Conant said. "But minimum wage laws have never been the reason we have a middle class in America."
Indeed, years ago, Rubio seems to have recognized the importance of such laws in protecting the working poor. According to Florida press reports from 2003, when Rubio was a state lawmaker, he supported a proposal that would ramp up penalties on agricultural growers whose laborers weren't paid the legal minimum wage.
As the Bradenton Herald reported in 2003, the "anti-slavery" bill would have declared that growers were responsible for the payment of migrant workers, even if the workers were technically employed by middlemen. The measure would have called for the payment of double the minimum wage in cases where farm workers hadn't been paid the legal minimum, according to the paper.
Florida records of the failed bill, HB 1327, list Rubio as a co-sponsor. While it was championed by advocates for low-wage workers, the measure was opposed by the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Association of Fruit and Vegetable Growers.
According to reports in the Palm Beach Post, Rubio was a "crucial ally" to Rep. Frank Peterman (D-St. Petersburg) in supporting the bill. "My heart goes out to the workers in this industry," Rubio said at the time. "Like a lot of my constituents, they come over to this country and work hard and try to get ahead and they should be treated fairly."
But, given the roadblocks the measure soon hit, the Post also reported that backers of the bill were "puzzled that [Rubio] can't exert more influence" among his Republican colleagues to move the bill forward.
Rubio explained to the paper that he couldn't persuade the then-chair of the agriculture committee, Republican Rep. Marty Bowen (Haines City), to get on board.
"It was obvious to me that she had problems with that bill," Rubio said.
The proposal ultimately died.
Of course, ramping up penalties on unscrupulous employers who don't pay the legal minimum is different from raising the minimum wage itself. But, unlike the Rubio criticizing Obama's proposal this week, the Rubio of 2003 seemed to believe that workers need some kind of protection from an unfettered free market, and that workers on the lowest rung of the economic ladder are the most likely to be swindled or otherwise abused.
This post has been updated with comments from Rubio's office.