Missouri General Assembly throws KC’s minimum wage ballot issue into question

Advocates for raising the minimum wage rallied last year outside the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City. Cost-of-living increases built into state law raised the state minimum from $7.65 an hour in 2016 to $7.70 in 2017.
Advocates for raising the minimum wage rallied last year outside the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City. Cost-of-living increases built into state law raised the state minimum from $7.65 an hour in 2016 to $7.70 in 2017. jhancock@kcstar.com

In the waning minutes of the 2017 session, the Missouri General Assembly approved legislation aimed at prohibiting local governments from raising their cities’ minimum wages above the state level, which now stands at $7.70 an hour.

The bill, scheduled to become law Aug. 28, also seeks to void any existing city ordinances that raise the minimum wage.

That throws into doubt the future of a Kansas City minimum wage ordinance — scheduled to go before voters in August — as well as an already-passed St. Louis ordinance, which began a phase-in to $11 an hour on May 5.

“I am disappointed to learn of the passing of the Republican-led bill that strips cities of their authority to fight poverty. States should not interfere with a city’s right to set minimum wage,” said Kansas City Councilman Jermaine Reed, who has pushed for a higher minimum wage.

“This bill has the potential of overturning the will of the people of Kansas City, who fought tirelessly to pass legislation that stabilizes families and provides opportunities for economic mobility.”

Reed urged Republican Gov. Eric Greitens to veto the bill, but most observers say that’s unlikely, given strong pro-business support.

Dan Mehan, CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, praised the bill.

“We applaud lawmakers for taking a stand for the St. Louis region by sending this bill to Gov. Greitens,” he said.

“We can’t make our state’s largest economic regions islands that employers avoid because of significantly increased labor costs. Unemployment is a problem facing St. Louis city and urban Kansas City. It makes no sense to mandate a minimum wage that makes that problem worse.”

If the bill is signed, Reed predicted the matter will end up in court.

Kansas City attorney Clinton Adams Jr., who represents the petitioners who successfully gathered signatures for the Aug. 8 ballot measure, said that election will go forward no matter what, because the Missouri Supreme Court ordered the petition initiative onto the local ballot earlier this year.

“We’re still entitled to the election,” Adams said.

That ballot measure seeks voter approval to boost Kansas City’s minimum wage to $10 per hour Sept. 1, with incremental increases to reach $15 an hour in 2022.

But Adams conceded that even if Kansas City voters support the higher minimum wage, state law may then pre-empt that vote.

“The state has successfully put major obstacles in the way of a higher minimum wage,” Adams said, adding that it’s bound to be litigated in court. The key question, he said, is whether a state law that takes effect Aug. 28 can retrospectively pre-empt something that Kansas City voters may approve Aug. 8.

Other advocates for raising the minimum wage said the legislature is undermining democracy as well as denying long-overdue pay increases to low-wage workers.

“But the Missouri legislature is not just refusing to raise the state’s paltry $7.70 minimum wage — it is considering overriding the will of local voters and elected leaders by stripping cities of the power to address wages, even though Missouri voters strongly support a higher minimum wage,” said Paul Sonn, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project.

Statehouse observers say an eventual lawsuit is expected to be filed in St. Louis, since workers in that city will be getting higher wages for months before the state law kicks in.

Exacerbating the confusion is the fact the Missouri Supreme Court in February ruled that St. Louis had the right to order businesses to pay a higher minimum wage because its board of aldermen voted to raise their rates before a 2015 state law went into effect.

The 2015 law is similar to the one passed Friday except it did not apply retroactively.

The legislature’s action to pre-empt local minimum wage ordinances was a response to the high court’s February ruling that upheld the St. Louis ordinance.

Earlier this year, the high court also ruled that Kansas City’s minimum wage petition initiative must be put before voters this year, because petitioners gathered sufficient signatures under the city charter.

The Kansas City Council also voted on its own in early March for a different minimum wage increase. That ordinance called for boosting the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour on Sept. 18 and then raising it incrementally each year to $13 by Jan. 1, 2023.

Advocates for low-wage workers gathered in March at City Hall to urge the Kansas City Council to increase the city's minimum wage above the state-set minimum of $7.70 per hour.

Sen. Dan Hegeman, a Republican from Andrew County and the minimum wage bill’s sponsor, said Kansas City should still be governed by the 2015 law, because the city didn’t raise its minimum wage before the law went into effect that year.

“Fundamentally,” Hegeman said, “we need to have a uniform, consistent minimum wage across the state so that we don’t pit communities against each other.”

The Missouri Supreme Court ordered Kansas City to put a proposal on the ballot that could eventually boost the city’s minimum wage to $15 a hour. But it did not settle the conflict between that ballot measure and 2015 state law. If Kansas City voters approve the higher wage, the court said, future legal challenges could decide that issue.

Proponents of the minimum wage ballot measure had argued that the 2015 law was unconstitutional because it wasn’t limited to just one topic. The bill also contained provisions prohibiting cities from banning plastic grocery bags.

That means regardless of the outcome of the vote in Kansas City in August, the matter will once again end up in the courts.

So to sum up: The bill passed Friday does not go into effect until Aug. 28. Republicans believe they already have prevented Kansas City from increasing its minimum wage based on the 2015 law, so the bill passed Friday was aimed more at undoing the St. Louis ordinance.

The National Employment Law Project also said that a dozen versions of minimum wage petitions have been certified for circulation by the Missouri secretary of state. Staging a statewide vote presents challenges, but, “in every election around the country in which voters have been able to vote on whether to raise the state’s minimum wage, voters have approved an increase with strong majorities,” the advocacy group said.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock