Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ A campaign to raise Nebraska’s minimum wage has collected nearly 135,000 signatures to place the issue on the November ballot, well beyond the minimum required, organizers said Thursday.

The group Nebraskans for Better Wages announced the final number at the Capitol as they prepared to submit dozens of petition boxes to the secretary of state’s office. Approximately 81,000 registered voter signatures are needed to qualify, but supporters aimed to far exceed that number in case some aren’t verified.

The measure would let voters decide whether Nebraska should gradually increase its minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal minimum wage, to $9 by 2016.

“Nebraskans value hard work and overwhelmingly agree that if you work hard, you should be able to take care of your family,” said state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a co-chairman of the campaign. “No Nebraskan who works hard should feel like they’re drowning in our economy, and everyone who works full-time should be able to provide for their families.”

Several polls have indicated a majority of Nebraskans support raising the minimum wage, but the proposal is opposed by business groups that contend it would cut into the profits of small companies that are most vulnerable to financial pressures.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, a co-chair of the petition campaign, said volunteers gathered signatures from all 93 Nebraska counties. Signatures were collected at libraries, churches, farmers markets and a Sandhills ranch expo, among other places, she said. Conrad said the group will now shift its focus toward the November election.

“We’ve started a conversation about an issue that is common sense,” Conrad said. “We’re talking about kitchen-table economics right here. Every single Nebraska voter understands these struggles, whether in their own home or across the street.”

Nebraska’s minimum wage was last increased in 2009. Twenty-one states have minimum wages above the federal minimum, including the bordering states of Colorado and Missouri.

Nordquist and Conrad began pushing for a ballot initiative after a similar measure died in the Legislature this year. Supporters fell five votes short of the 25 they needed to advance the bill through a first-round vote.

John Cavanaugh, a former Democratic congressman from Omaha who was involved the campaign, called the ballot measure “a turning point for Nebraska politics.

“I think the magnitude of the accomplishment of 135,000 signatures in seven weeks demonstrates that tens of thousands of Nebraskans want more fairness,” he said. “They’re ready to make political change in order to achieve that fairness and equity.”

Nebraska’s Constitution requires petition circulators to gather signatures from 7 percent of all registered voters to change a state law on the ballot. As part of that total, they’re required to visit at least 38 counties _ roughly two-fifths of the 93 in Nebraska _ and collect signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in each.

Assuming it qualifies, the minimum wage proposal will be the first petition initiative to appear on the ballot since 2008. Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said the attorney general’s office will start drafting language that will appear on the November ballot.

The 2008 ballot measure banned the government from using race as a factor in hiring, which opponents criticized as anti-affirmative action. Other ballot measures have involved gambling, gay marriage, term limits and a proposal to cap state spending.

“It’s not uncommon to have an average of six to eight petition initiatives filed each election cycle,” Gale said, though many never qualify for the ballot.