Higher minimum wage gets KC voters’ support; attention turns to statewide campaign

Missourians have voted to increase the state minimum wage from $7.85 an hour to $12 by 2023.
Missourians have voted to increase the state minimum wage from $7.85 an hour to $12 by 2023. along@kcstar.com

Kansas City voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly supported a measure to raise the city’s minimum wage above Missouri’s, but the immediate effect is symbolic because the state legislature has passed a law barring cities from setting their own wage floors.

Meanwhile, attention turned to a separate initiative petition campaign that aims to raise the minimum wage statewide.

At the polls Tuesday, 69 percent of Kansas City voters approved a question that calls for a city wage floor of $10 an hour, effective Aug. 24, 2017, plus annual increases of $1.25 an hour, beginning Sept. 1, 2019, until the minimum reaches $15 an hour in 2022.

It passed citywide on a vote of 23,463 to 10,763, in unofficial final returns, with overwhelming support from south of the Missouri River tempered by less enthusiasm from voters in the Northland.

The proposal reached voters through an initiative petition backed by a consortium of Kansas City faith, labor and economic justice groups. Some of the supporters gathered at the Freedom Inc. office to await election returns.

“We believed there was a growing coalition of black and white, Latino, Native American, rich, middle class, poor, labor, unemployed, elected officials and employers — a broad-based coalition — that believed income inequality was and is a major issue in Kansas City and across this country,” said the Rev. Vernon Howard Jr., a leader in the Kansas City initiative. “We want to thank all those individuals who voted but are not low-wage workers for being people of good will.”

Meanwhile on Tuesday, a different group advocating higher wages stood on the City Hall steps to launch a statewide initiative petition campaign. Its goal is to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.70 an hour to $12 by 2023 by winning a statewide public vote in 2018.

The Kansas City Law Department may now decide whether or not to pursue litigation to attempt to fight the state nullification of local wage levels. But a likelier outcome may be for the city to support the statewide initiative petition drive, which Mayor Sly James already has said is the best path ahead.

The Kansas City petitioners, however, vow to continue a legal challenge of the state pre-emption.

“The statewide initiative doesn’t change in our minds our course of action,” Howard said. “We are clear that we believe that the constitutionality of the Missouri legislature’s law is under question. We’ll continue to pursue that course. There is litigation to be had.”

But Howard said the Kansas City initiative petitioners also support the statewide drive, even though they prefer a $15-an-hour goal.

“We believe any and all efforts are good,” Howard said.

The state campaign is backed by the Service Employees International Union, the Kansas City AFL-CIO, Stand Up Kansas City and Missouri Jobs with Justice.

That labor consortium had stepped back from promoting the Kansas City ballot question in favor of statewide action, largely because they believed the odds for wage gains appeared better with a statewide petition.

The local pre-emption statute was passed in the final minutes of the state legislative session in May, and Gov. Eric Greitens allowed it to become law.

“It’s up to us, the people, to take matters into our own hands,” said Richard Franklin, a janitor and state petition drive supporter.

Tuesday’s election wasn’t the first time Kansas City has aimed for a higher city minimum wage. The City Council voted in March to raise the city’s wage floor to $8.50 an hour, to be effective Sept. 18. But the state nullification affects that vote, too. A minimum wage effort by the city in 2015 also failed to become law.

The local wage question went on the ballot after the Missouri Supreme Court held in January that the initiative petition must go to voters because it had gone through all the correct steps. The court said then that future legal challenges would need to iron out the conflict between city ordinances and state law.

The state’s nullification of local minimum wage rights also affects St. Louis, where a city-passed wage increase to $10 an hour went into effect in May. That floor is being rolled back to $7.70 effective Aug. 28, when the state pre-emption goes into effect, but some employers have said they won’t take away raises they already awarded.

Higher minimum wages, especially on a city-by-city basis, are opposed by business groups such as the Missouri Restaurant Association and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which lobbied for the state nullification law.

Daniel Mehan, CEO of the state chamber, said business growth would be stymied if cities created “islands that employers avoid because of increased labor costs.”

The employer groups mounted little opposition, though, to the Kansas City ballot issue, perhaps recognizing that it would have to challenge the state nullification.

Economic studies around the country continue to evaluate — with varying conclusions — whether higher wage floors help or hurt low-wage workers.

Supporters say more take home pay provides a livable wage, improves the overall economy and lessens reliance on public assistance. Critics say higher wage floors lead to workers’ layoffs, reduced work hours and increased automation of jobs.

For the statewide effort, organized labor and the Stand Up KC groups softened their demands, voiced since 2013, for “$15 an hour and a union,” deeming $12 more palatable for voters statewide.

Karen Wright, a retired nurse and Service Employees International Union member, gathered statewide petition signatures early Tuesday at Meyer Boulevard and Wornall Road. She said about one-third of the voters she stopped at the polling place didn’t agree with the petition.

“They said low-wage workers need to get more skills or get a better job,” Wright said. “But about two-thirds signed and said that even this isn’t going to be enough by 2023.”

Backers of a higher minimum wage repeatedly said at the rally that low-wage jobs are not held solely by teenagers. Most are held by adults, and many have families. Some economic studies suggest that a single parent with one child in Kansas City would need to make at least $22 an hour to be able to afford basic living expenses.

Judy Morgan, a Democrat who represents Kansas City in the state legislature, said the legislature “did the wrong thing” to take away the rights of Kansas City and St. Louis to raise their minimum wages.

“We have to correct that,” Morgan said. “ Low-wage workers should not have to live on poverty wages. The people are on our side.”

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford