AUSTIN, Texas -- 2006 makes the ninth year in a row the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15 an hour. It's bad economics, it's bad policy, it's stupid, it's unfair, and it's high damn time to do something about it. It is also, as Sen. Edward Kennedy says, a moral issue.

The Democrats have a new strategy that may finally get the Republicans off the pot. They're working to get a minimum wage increase on state ballots, including Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas and Montana. The theory is that putting a minimum-wage increase on the ballot does for Democrats what putting on an anti-gay marriage proposition does for Republicans -- it gets out the base.

Of the seven states with the best chance to have minimum wage ballot initiatives, five were decided by less that 10 percentage points in the most recent presidential election. In theory, this should scare the happy pappy out of the Republicans, who will then vote to increase the minimum wage the first chance they get in Congress, thus assuring an increase either way. Clever, eh?

The last minimum wage increase dates to September 1997, and inflation has since eroded the wage's buying power to its second-lowest level since 1955, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Republican opposition to an increase is based entirely on ideological grounds. Many Republicans keep saying increasing the minimum wage will hurt small business, for which there is no evidence, and cause people making the minimum wage to be laid off. But again, there is no evidence. Time after time, round after round, these same arguments, which are demonstrably false, keep getting repeated. It is really quite painful, since the economic effects of a minimum wage increase have been documented so often.

If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, when it was $1.60 an hour, it would be $7.60 an hour today, according to the AFL-CIO. A year-round, full-time worker would have to make $7.74 an hour just to be at the poverty level for a family of three -- $2.59 above the current minimum wage. The gap between middle-class workers and those making the minimum wage is the largest on record.

Of course, we all enjoy reading about the record Christmas bonuses various CEOs, top executives and board members have voted themselves lately. The business pages are just a jolly recap -- no one ever gets coals and switches when they set their own salary. Here's to starting 2006 off with this simple bit of fairness.

Well, nothing like getting to the end of the year to give us occasion to pause in wonder that we have once again survived even in the face of fresh heights of human stupidity. From the day Sen. Bill Frist, M.D., successfully diagnosed Terri Schiavo by watching her on videotape ("She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli," he said. Her autopsy later revealed she was blind) to the happy day Veeper Cheney told us the Iraqi insurgency was in its last throes, it's been just one delightful episode after another. Truly, I do not understand how people can become discouraged about our national life, when players like Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed face just deserts.

For a new standard in graciousness, who can forget Barbara Bush speaking of refugees from Hurricane Katrina stashed in the Astrodome: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Sure, Katrina was awful, but it brought Michael heckuva-job-Brownie Brown to our attention, so we got to read his inspiring e-mails -- such as, "I am a fashion god."

For those who have been wondering where all the heroes are, let me recommend Russ Feingold, John Murtha and Cindy Sheehan. Isn't it amazing how often all you have to do to be a hero to is to stand up and tell the truth?

With those few, shining exceptions, we can bid adieu to 2005 without great regret. Or, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry said to a reporter earlier this year, "Adios, mo-fo."


Apology: I bit on a bad story in my Dec. 20 column. The tale of the UMass-Dartmouth student who was visited by the feds for checking out Mao's "Little Red Book" has turned out to be a hoax. So sorry.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.