Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

Voters Approved Wage Hikes, But GOP Lawmakers Have Other Ideas

  • Lawmakers are already amending voter-approved wage hikes
  • Raises threatened by leaders in Maine and Washington State

Voters took to the polls in November and approved big hikes in four states’ minimum wages: Washington State, Colorado, Maine and Arizona.

But the increases may not actually take effect as voters intended because elected representatives -- mostly Republicans -- are moving to rein them in. In Washington, where voters opted for a $13.50 an hour minimum wage by 2020, and Maine, where it was set to rise to $12 that year, state legislators have proposed a battery of bills to water down the increases. The city council in Flagstaff, Arizona has done the same to a local initiative that would have boosted the wage floor to $12 this year, sooner than the statewide increase.

“You have the voters on the one hand who are saying, ‘This is what we need, this is what our communities need,’ and then you have policy makers coming in and saying, ‘Well, what you need isn’t good for you,’” says Heather Boushey, the executive director of the left-of-center Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

The bills represent the latest round in a long-running debate among cities, states, voters and courts over who gets to set wage rates and other workplace rules. With the federal minimum static at $7.25 since 2009, and little hope of movement in the Republican-controlled Congress, labor groups and Democrats have turned to state and local bills and ballot measures, securing $15 wage laws in states like California and cities around the country. On Election Day in 2014, voters approved smaller increases in deep-red Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota.

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Business groups have also sought to contain such efforts, which they say kill jobs and leave an unwieldy patchwork of policies. They’ve filed lawsuits including a still-pending challenge to Washington’s new wage hike and one against Arizona’s, which that state’s top court unanimously rejected March 14. They’ve also helped push laws to block local wage increases in states like Alabama and Iowa by denying cities the authority to set their own labor standards.

Liberal groups such as the NAACP have responded with lawsuits of their own, including one that contends the mostly-white Alabama legislature’s override of mostly-black Birmingham’s minimum wage law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 2015, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard signed a law excluding workers under 18 from his state’s new voter-approved minimum wage, which voters then invalidated in another referendum last fall. But legislators in other states are following in Daugaard’s footsteps.

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“It just makes it that much better for the public,” says Maine Republican State Senator Scott Cyrway, the sponsor of a bill allowing his state’s minors to be paid less than the new minimum wage. “It’s trying to help the economy and help our kids learn work ethic and help business people to hire teenagers.”

Cyrway’s bill is one of nine proposing changes to the new $12 minimum wage law that are slated to be considered by a joint House-Senate labor committee at hearings Wednesday. Others would instead freeze the state’s minimum at $9 an hour; stop it from being indexed to inflation; or forbid it from exceeding the average minimum wage in New England.

“We don’t want to be in the position where we start to bleed jobs,” said Republican Michael Thibodeau, Maine’s state senate president. “Maine can’t afford to be an outlier.”

Thibodeau and other legislators compare the minimum wage referendum to the marijuana legalization voters also approved in November, to which legislators plan to add additional safety safeguards. He says the wage hike threatens to have negative consequences voters didn’t see coming, like driving jobs to neighboring states.

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The evidence doesn’t support such fears, says economist Michael Reich, who chairs the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at University of California, Berkeley. "Nobody’s going to travel several miles in rush hour, or any kind of traffic, to save a nickel on a hamburger," says Reich, who co-authored a study of thirty-five years of data on restaurants along state borders and found no job-killing effects from minimum wage increases. "It’s just not what happens."

The most likely change to pass in Maine is a restoration of the “tip credit,” the differential between the general minimum wage and the lower rate that companies can pay to tipped employees. Under the referendum, tipped workers would eventually be owed the same minimum wage from their employers as everyone else, as is already the case in states like California. Legislators from both parties have proposed going back to Maine’s prior law, under which servers get half of what non-tipped employees like dishwashers are owed. Republicans control the governorship as well as the state senate; while Democrats hold 77 of the 151 seats in the state house, half a dozen Democrats have co-sponsored bills restoring the tip credit. “I call myself a ‘Jobs Democrat,’ and I think this is a jobs issue,” said one of them, Representative Martin Grohman.

Servers’ Pay

Democrats in Maine have revoked raises for servers in the state’s crucial restaurant industry before. City council members in Portland, the state’s largest city, voted in 2015 to cancel an increase in tipped workers’ minimum wage that they’d approved a couple months earlier as part of an overall wage increase. The legislators said the increase for tipped workers had been included in the law by mistake.

“It’s easy to throw tipped workers under the bus,” said Heather McIntosh, a restaurant server who says she’ll be more vulnerable to sexual harassment if the legislature leaves her reliant on customers’ tips in lieu of the full minimum wage that voters intended. “Without it, I oftentimes have to grin and bear it.”

Some legislators are urging against watering down the new wage increase. “I think the ballot question was clear, and I think voters did understand the question,” said State Senator Shenna Bellows, a Democrat who represents a district that backed both President Trump and the new minimum wage. “For me, the will of voters is extraordinarily important."

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Such arguments don’t sway Washington State Senator Michael Baumgartner, who introduced bills to delay the minimum wage increases for voters there, and to carve out non-profits and minor employees. “A lot of times voters just don’t have full information or recognize the impact,” he said.

Legislators have already amended a wage hike in Flagstaff, where the city council voted March 21 to void a provision of November’s local ballot measure that would have required the city’s minimum wage to exceed the state’s by at least $2. Because Arizonans also voted in November to hike the statewide minimum, that provision would have brought Flagstaff’s wage floor up to $12 by July. “We listened to all of these extreme viewpoints and said, ‘Hey, we have to do something reasonable,’” said Democratic council member Jim McCarthy.

While Republicans control Arizona’s governorship and legislature, the statewide minimum wage is shielded by the state’s “Voter Protection Act,” which prevents lawmakers from amending voter-approved laws unless the changes have at least three-quarters support in each house of the legislature and also “further the purpose” of the initiative. Republicans say the unintended consequences from the minimum wage hike illustrate the need to let legislators intervene.

“A lot of the folks out there are presenting this as the legislature trying to attack the voters,” said Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who last year unsuccessfully proposed an initiative to make it easier to amend other initiatives. “The people who are saying that are all special interests.”

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