A closed-door session Friday between advocates for the poor and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ended with an agreement to take another closer look at solving problems of the working poor.

The step was praised by those from Utahns Against Hunger, the Crossroads Urban Center and Utah Jobs with Justice, who said Huntsman's commitment to the issue was impressive and "politically courageous."

"We have no reason to be skeptical at this point," said Pam Silberman, an analyst with Utah Issues, the state's leading nonprofit agency that advocates for the poor. "He has shown us he is dedicated at looking at this issue."

The meeting came in the wake of what advocates considered a political misstep by the governor: He signed SB139 into law despite conceding he wasn't aware of the intricacies in the minimum wage bill.

Sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, the legislation prohibits cities and counties from requiring companies that seek government contracts to pay workers more than the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage.

Those who lobbied against such a prohibition say government should not perpetuate the plight of the working poor by contracting with employers that pay such dismal wages — wages that often lead to the requirement of holding down multiple jobs and a dependence on state assistance.

"It doesn't make sense for government to give money to employers who then turn around and count on government to help their employees meet their basic needs," said Bill Tibbitts, the Anti-Hunger Action Committee coordinator for Crossroads Urban Plaza.

Advocates say Huntsman, after he admitted little knowledge of the issue, obviously hit the books.

"He was caught unaware in a public interview about a bill he signed into law, did his research and said he was willing to discuss it with us. I think that is politically courageous," said Karen Crompton, executive director of Voices for Utah Children.

Both Crompton and Tibbitts said Huntsman's direct approach with advocates at the outset of the meeting leads them to believe the governor is serious about looking for solutions.

"He came in and told us he knows working poverty is a problem, that low wages are a problem and he wanted to know the first steps that can be taken" to solve working poverty, Tibbitts said.

"I thought he was sincere and was really impressed with his approach."

The issue of government promoting or even mandating those it does business with to pay employees a "living wage" has been a controversial cornerstone of Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson's administration.

Anderson signed an executive order that would have given bidding contractors "points preference" who paid a living wage ($9.06 an hour with health insurance) to its employees doing work on behalf of Salt Lake City.

The passage of Stephenson's bill was seen as a way to stymie Anderson's efforts.

Friday's meeting included representatives from a variety of nonprofits who nevertheless hold out hope that despite passage of SB139, government might be willing to join hands with corporations and companies to effect some sort of change.

It also foreshadowed a protest scheduled today at 10 a.m. at the West Valley Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, where such groups as Utah Jobs with Justice, Utah NOW and the Better Wage Project of Utah plan to draw attention to what they say are inequitable employment practices.

Following Friday's meeting, Mike Mower, the governor's legislative liaison, said the next step will be to assemble the task force by collecting a diverse group of public policymakers, legislators, advocates and those from the private sector who might naturally oppose any move to increase wages.

The governor's study group will then work with a legislative task force that is scheduled this fall to take up the issue of examining possible minimum wage changes in Utah.

Mower said he is hopeful that some sort of action plan can be hammered out in time for next year's legislative session, which will begin in mid-January.


E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com