By BRYAN CORBIN, Evansville Courier & Press staff writer

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INDIANAPOLIS - Gov. Mitch Daniels on Wednesday indicated his willingness to increase Indiana's minimum wage above the current rate, $5.15 an hour.

"I've said before I'd be fine with an increase," Daniels said.

Three House Democrats, including Evansville's state Rep. Phil Hoy, are introducing a bill to raise the state minimum in three stages, up to $7.50 an hour by September 2008.

Hoy said such an increase is overdue, and might reduce slightly the number of working poor who are on food stamps.

The federal minimum wage has been $5.15 an hour since Congress last adjusted it in 1997. States have the authority to set their own wage levels higher than $5.15, and 30 states already have.

Any state minimum-wage increase would have to pass both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate before it would reach the governor's desk.

"I don't have a specific number in mind," Daniels said, "but it's been where it is for years now - and so some increase at least to keep up with inflation makes sense.

"If $5.15 made sense in '97, then something higher makes sense today. I have no problem with it."

Added Daniels: "You have to be careful: There is a point at which you're costing people jobs. But I don't think we're near that now."

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of business interests, opposes raising the wage above the federal minimum, contending the increase in labor costs would be a counterproductive "job-killer." Chamber leaders have said it would be prudent for the Legislature to wait to see what action Congress takes, since the incoming Democratic majority intends to move on a federal minimum-wage increase.

At a news conference Wednesday in Washington, President Bush also said he supported a $2.10-an-hour increase in the federal minimum over two years, up to $7.25, as long as it is paired with tax breaks for small businesses.

Regardless of possible congressional action, Hoy said he and his two House colleagues still are pursuing their bill, House Bill 1027. "We don't know what the federal level will do. If they pass something first that we feel good about, well, that would make a difference, of course." If Congress acted first, an Indiana increase would be redundant, Hoy said, "unless we could go higher."

Daniels also does not object if the Legislature acts before Congress does. "I'd be fine with an Indiana change, regardless - as long as it was within some reason," the Republican governor said.

Hoy, D-Evansville, said he hopes to find some Republican legislators to co-sponsor the bill. "There really is no reason in the world why the two parties cannot come together on this issue," Hoy said Wednesday.

Hoy was one of three House Democrats, along with Reps. John Day, D-Indianapolis, and Joe Micon, D-West Lafayette, who each were introducing wage-increase bills. Instead of pursuing three separate proposals before the House Labor and Employment Committee, Hoy said they agreed to collaborate on Day's legislation, House Bill 1027, which would phase in a $2.35-an-hour wage increase over a year and a half.

Separate from that bill, a Senate Democrat has introduced a similar proposal. Senate Bill 25, authored by Sen. Anita Bowser, D-Michigan City, would increase the minimum wage to $7.25 by July 1. For employees under age 20, Bowser's bill would increase it to $6.25 an hour.

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