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Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto jeopardizes Kansas City’s push for a higher minimum wage

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill Friday that could have repercussions on Kansas City’s effort to raise the minimum wage.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill Friday that could have repercussions on Kansas City’s effort to raise the minimum wage. kmyers@kcstar.com

Gov. Jay Nixon has vetoed a bill that would limit the ability of local governments to regulate paper and plastic grocery bags — and that might have allowed Kansas City to increase the minimum wage within city limits.

The push to raise the wage in Kansas City is likely to continue, but now it has even more legal questions than before.

Mayor Sly James said in a statement Friday that he fully expects debate and a final vote on Kansas City’s minimum wage proposal to proceed next Thursday.

“The City Council and I will do our duty to serve the interest of Kansas Citians on an appropriate minimum wage,” James said.

But city officials also acknowledge that the whole matter is likely to end up before the courts, which was possible even before House Bill 722 was vetoed.

Nixon’s office announced the veto Friday.

“Irrespective of whether one favors paper or plastic, of all the issues facing Missouri families today, it is highly questionable that the bagging of groceries is one that warrants intervention by the long arm of state government,” his message said.

The Kansas City problem comes from the bill’s other language, which broadly prohibits cities from enacting minimum wage laws and other employment policies exceeding federal or state standards.

But it also said the bill, if enacted, would not pre-empt any minimum-wage laws in effect on Aug. 28. Some in Kansas City argued it was that clause that provided a window of opportunity for the city to enact its own higher minimum wage before that date.

Nixon’s veto of the bill throws that effort into confusion because it closes the potential window. It’s possible that earlier state laws, now in effect, could override Kansas City’s authority to raise the wage.

For two months, Kansas City has been debating a grass-roots petition initiative calling for raising the minimum wage in the city from the state-mandated $7.65 per hour to $10 per hour on Sept. 1 and then incrementally to $15 per hour by 2020.

This week, that proposal got modified. The latest proposal before the council calls for bumping the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour on Aug. 24, then to $9.15 per hour by Jan. 7, 2017, then in 65-cent increments annually to $13 per hour by 2023.

Council members have said they planned to take a final vote next Thursday, and the latest version of a minimum wage increase could still be altered before that decisive vote.

For months, there has been considerable debate over whether Kansas City can adopt its own minimum wage. In a March 30 memo to the City Council, City Attorney Bill Geary concluded that Missouri’s minimum wage law pre-empts local minimum wage ordinances.

Others disagreed and interpreted state law differently. And organizers of the petition initiative urged Kansas City to fight the state’s authority in court for the right to adopt a higher minimum wage on behalf of the working poor.

Then after the legislature approved HB 722 in late May, city officials said they thought that bill’s language appeared to offer a possibility for the city to enact its own minimum wage law, as long as it did so before Aug. 28, so the council proceeded.

On Friday, proponents of a higher minimum wage still praised Nixon’s decision to veto HB 722 because they thought the legislation was an overreach by the state to limit local control on everything from grocery bags to employee pay and benefits.

“If a city or county sees a problem, it should be able to solve it through a local solution, especially if the state government won’t do anything about it,” said Lara Granich, executive director of Missouri Jobs with Justice.

Granich said her organization disagreed with the city attorney’s belief that other state laws precluded a higher local minimum wage.

Vernon Howard, a spokesman for the petitioners seeking a higher minimum wage in Kansas City, also praised the veto.

“House Bill 722 did nothing to allow local citizens to be empowered to effect change within a community on a host of fronts,” Howard said. “It was overbearing. It was intrusive.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the minimum wage hike have consistently vowed to go to court to fight the council’s ordinance, regardless of what happened with HB 722.

In a letter to James on Friday, Missouri groups representing hotels, restaurants, groceries and others argued that any minimum wage change must come at the state level.

“We encourage you to honor existing state law,” the groups wrote, “and use your influence with the council to avoid a costly challenge of current law.”

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