Kansas City voters can expect to see a proposal to raise the city’s minimum wage on the Aug. 8 ballot.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Margene Burnett on Tuesday denied an attempt by backers of a minimum wage ordinance to require the city to put the measure on the April 4 ballot.
Burnett basically said the issue needed more time to go through the city’s customary ordinance approval processes and shouldn’t be rushed to a vote.
Burnett also said she had no authority at this time to order the city to place the measure on the August ballot, but that it was the city’s duty to “ensure that this matter is processed through the Council and placed on the next available ballot which is August 8, 2017.”
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The state’s highest court had ruled last month that the city must “take all steps necessary” to put the proposed ordinance before the voters but did not specify an election date.
Kansas City Council members said Tuesday the council will prepare a higher minimum wage ordinance for voters to decide in August.
Councilman Jermaine Reed, one of the council members who supported placement on the April 4 ballot, said he was disappointed with Tuesday’s court opinion.
“While the minimum wage increase will not appear on the April 2017 ballot, our democracy stands strong,” Reed said. “...Voters will be able to decide on a local minimum wage increase in August 2017. I am committed to ensuring our city has the opportunity to vote on this issue. I will work with my colleagues to ultimately give the community their say on the matter.”
The August ballot measure is likely to pit advocates for low-wage workers against fast-food restaurant owners and other service industry representatives.
Still, a separate case pending before the Missouri Supreme Court could yet create a big cloud hanging over that August ballot measure.
That case involves a minimum wage ordinance passed in 2015 in St. Louis. It was argued before the court in October 2016. It could produce an opinion in the next few months that cities in Missouri have no right to set their own minimum wages in conflict with the state.
Various business groups have spoken out against the right of cities to establish their own minimum wages, arguing that it would create management difficulties in trying to administer conflicting wage scales with stores or restaurants in multiple locations.
Depending on what the St. Louis-related opinion says, it could set up a problematic situation in Kansas City — the Supreme Court’s order that the minimum wage question must go on the Kansas City ballot could run into a ruling that forbids cities from setting their own wage floors.
The proposed ballot language for Kansas City reads: “Shall the City of Kansas City enact now a municipal minimum wage of $10 per hour increased annually beginning in 2017 by $1.25 per hour to reach $15 per hour in 2021?”
The current minimum wage in Missouri is $7.70 an hour.
The tight timing to make deadlines for printing the April 4 ballots makes it highly unlikely that petitioners would appeal Burnett’s decision to the Missouri Court of Appeals. Election authorities said Tuesday they were already poised to print ballots without the minimum wage question. Any reprinting of ballots could cost the city more than $40,000.
The minimum wage ballot question has been on the city’s table for nearly two years.
The Kansas City Council in July 2015 approved an ordinance to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2020, but the Missouri General Assembly stepped in before the ordinance could take effect, prohibiting cities in the state from setting their own minimum wages.
Meanwhile, a group of petitioners had gathered enough signatures to place a $15-an-hour measure on the November 2015 ballot. The city went to court to have it removed, citing the legislature’s ban, and a circuit court judge ruled in September 2015 that the proposal should be stricken from the November ballot.
The petitioners appealed, and the Missouri Supreme Court last month ruled that the city must “take all steps necessary” to put the proposed ordinance before the voters but did not specify an election date.
That order was handed down Jan. 17. Two days later, the City Council received the petitioners’ amended proposal, which updated the original effective dates and timing of the wage increases.
Council members voted 7-6 on Jan. 19 to place the proposal on the April 4 ballot, but a City Charter provision requires nine votes to waive a three-reading requirement and advance an ordinance on the same day it was introduced.
Burnett’s decision followed a Feb. 8 hearing, at which she heard an attorney for the city argue that the ordinance shouldn’t be rushed contrary to procedures.
Attorneys for the petitioners argued that too much time already had been lost and that low-wage earners in the city deserved a quick vote. Lead attorney Taylor Fields said Tuesday morning that he was still processing the judge’s order and had no decision yet about possible future actions.
Attorneys for the city’s election boards argued that the boards were pushing deadlines to proof and print ballots for April 4.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Burnett asked for additional information to help show how often the three-reading rule had been waived and how often a few other election-related processes had been expedited.