LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Missouri may be the only state where voters will have a chance to raise the minimum wage this year, as a Michigan ballot initiative got pre-empted by the state legislature, and another in Arkansas is tied up in court.
Arkansas Issue 5, which would raise the state’s minimum wage from $8.50 to $11 per hour by 2021, qualified for the ballot in August, after supporters submitted more than 84,500 valid signatures, well over the about 68,000 needed. But in early September, Arkansans for a Strong Economy, a Chamber of Commerce front group, filed a lawsuit alleging that procedural violations in how the petitions were collected should disqualify it.
A magistrate appointed by the state Supreme Court heard arguments Sept. 17, but a decision may not come until after early voting begins Oct. 22, says Kristin Foster, campaign manager for Arkansans for a Fair Wage, the union-backed coalition behind Issue 5.
“This is just an attempt by the Chamber to prevent voters from deciding the issue in November,” she says. “We feel confident we provided enough signatures.”
Arkansans for a Fair Wage will continue campaigning while waiting for the magistrate’s decision, Foster adds. The group estimates that the measure would increase pay for 300,000 workers in the state, beginning with a raise to $9.25 Jan. 1.
A poll of likely voters conducted by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College earlier this month found 60% of respondents in favor of the initiative with 30% opposed. The 2014 initiative that raised the minimum to $8.50 carried every one of the state’s 75 counties, says Foster, and Arkansas has gained 70,000 jobs since then.
On the other side of the Ozark Mountains, however, Missouri AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Jake Hummel says “there doesn’t seem to be a lot of organized opposition” to Proposition B, which would raise the minimum wage from $7.85 by 85 cents a year until it reaches $12 in 2023.
“Raising the minimum wage polls so highly that I don’t know they could throw that much money against it,” says Hummel, who is also a state senator from a St. Louis district. Missouri voters, he says, have come around to the idea that raising wages for the lowest-paid workers both increases everyone else’s pay and helps the overall economy.
Raise Up Missouri, the union-backed coalition coordinating the campaign, estimates that Proposition B would increase the wages of 677,000 workers, more than two-thirds of them adults, one-third over 40, and 100,000 old enough to have retired. More than two-thirds of them, it adds, would be outside the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, where a 2017 state law nullified locally enacted increases. In some rural areas, the coalition says, the initiative would raise the pay of more than 30% of workers.
In Michigan, an initiative to raise the minimum from $9.25 to $12 overcame a court challenge to qualify for the ballot in August. But on Sept. 5, the Republican-dominated state legislature, which in June had repealed the state’s prevailing-wage law for workers on public construction projects, enacted both the $12 minimum wage and another initiative requiring employers to give workers paid sick leave.
The ulterior motives were clear. If the two measures had been enacted as ballot initiatives, amending them would need a three-fourths majority in the legislature. By voting them into law in September, the legislature retained the power to change them in its lame-duck session after the election—which Republican leaders said they intended to do.
“We’re looking at a whole suite of things that we may think are more friendly to Michigan,” Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof told the Detroit Free Press. “We’re looking at all the things that would continue Michigan on the economic growth path, and some of these things are prohibitive.”
One possible change would be repealing the part of the initiative that would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers from $3.52 an hour to $12 by 2024, an increase strongly opposed by the restaurant industry. Meekhof told the Free Press he’d also like to get rid of the paid sick-leave requirement. “The employer and employee should work it out,” he said. “The government shouldn’t be involved.”
Tipped workers are also likely to lose their raise in Washington, D.C. In June, voters approved an initiative to eliminate the $3.89 tipped minimum for tipped workers—so employers would have to pay them the regular city minimum of $13.25, instead of just covering the difference if the lower number plus tips falls short of that. But at a Sept. 17 City Council hearing, seven of the 13 members supported repealing it before it goes into effect in October.
Measures like raising the minimum wage and paid sick leave are often more popular with voters than they are with legislators, says Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, a union-backed national organization working with Arkansans for a Fair Wage. So “ballot initiatives give voters the chance to break through our broken political system,” he said in an email to LaborPress.
In 2014, four solidly Republican states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—approved initiatives raising the minimum wage. In 2016, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington voted increases to at least $12 an hour, and South Dakotans overwhelmingly repealed a law excluding teenage workers from the 2014 increase.
This year, along with aiding the Arkansas and Missouri minimum-wage campaigns, the Fairness Project is working with local efforts to enact paid sick leave in the cities of Dallas and San Antonio, and for initiatives to expand Medicaid in Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and Utah, states that refused to do so under the Affordable Care Act.
Because such measures have proven popular with voters, says Schleifer, “special interests often try to use their lawyers and lobbyists to keep our initiatives off the ballot—because they know the vast majority of voters want to give hardworking minimum-wage workers a raise.”