The Kansas City Council agreed Thursday to place a citizens petition initiative on the November ballot that seeks a local minimum wage increase to $15 per hour by 2020.
But the council also said the petition may get withdrawn from the ballot if the Missouri General Assembly acts in September to prevent a higher minimum wage.
“This is just about as confusing a procedural matter as I’ve come across in a long, long time,” City Attorney Bill Geary said Thursday as he discussed the predicament with the city’s elected leaders.
The council already approved an ordinance in July to increase the city’s base wage to $13 per hour by 2020. But a group of civil rights organizations gathered sufficient signatures this spring for an initiative petition seeking the higher $15 wage.
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Geary advised this is a valid petition under the city charter and there is not an obvious constitutional reason to keep the measure off the Nov. 3 ballot. The council had to authorize the ballot question by Thursday to meet the deadline for a November election.
But complications abound.
The General Assembly has scheduled a special veto session to begin Sept. 16, when lawmakers will try to override a governor’s veto and put in place a law that specifically prohibits cities like Kansas City from adopting any minimum wage above the state-mandated level of $7.65 per hour.
Geary said that if the legislature removes any possibility of local control of minimum wage, it will make the council-approved $13-per-hour ordinance moot. It would also make the petition initiative moot, and the city would be wasting $500,000 on a ballot question that had become irrelevant.
“An initiative petition cannot do what the council cannot do,” Mayor Sly James explained.
So the ordinance Thursday authorized the November ballot language but included a provision that withdraws the petition initiative if the state legislature acts.
Vernon Howard, spokesman for the petitioners and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, said his group believes the city has the moral responsibility to put the petition on the November ballot and defend the city’s right to adopt a higher minimum wage to benefit poor working people.
If the legislature doesn’t override the veto, the city’s proposed $13 minimum wage faces a challenge on a different front.
Business groups that oppose the $13 minimum wage as too high have launched a referendum effort. Restaurant officials said Thursday that they expect to have the necessary 3,400 valid petition signatures soon to try to overturn the council’s ordinance.