Government & Politics

Kansas City minimum wage increase weighed by Missouri Supreme Court

Minimum wage rally outside Missouri Supreme Court

Terrance Wise, a fast food worker from Kansas City, discusses efforts to raise the minimum wage shortly after the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue.
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Terrance Wise, a fast food worker from Kansas City, discusses efforts to raise the minimum wage shortly after the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue.

Supporters of an increase in Kansas City’s minimum wage argued to the Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday that legislative attempts to thwart their efforts are unconstitutional.

Last year a group of civil rights and low-wage worker advocates gathered enough petition signatures to put a measure on the local ballot last November calling for a $15 minimum wage in Kansas City by 2020.

However, a judge later ordered the issue off the ballot, arguing that Missouri law prohibits cities from adopting a higher minimum wage than the state-set minimum of $7.65 per hour.

That state law forbidding local control on minimum wages was approved by state lawmakers and then vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon. The Republican-dominated General Assembly voted to override Nixon’s veto in September 2015.

Taylor Fields, the attorney representing the backers of the petition for a higher minimum wage, told the court that the new Missouri law is unconstitutional because it contains more than one subject, which is prohibited under the state constitution. In addition to the minimum wage, the legislation also prohibits cities from banning plastic grocery bags.

Furthermore, Fields argued, an earlier state law that also aimed to prohibit local governments from raising the minimum wage above the state level is unconstitutional for the same reasons. A St. Louis Circuit judge agreed with that conclusion back in 2001.

Sarah Baxter, assistant city attorney for Kansas City, told the Supreme Court on Thursday that city leaders “strongly support” the idea of raising the minimum wage. The City Council voted for a more modest minimum wage increase, but because lawmakers voted to override Nixon’s veto, the council rescinded that ordinance.

“Unfortunately, the state legislature has spoken,” Baxter said. “We do not have the authority to pass the ordinance. And we cannot be required to put an ordinance before voters that is expressly prohibited by state law.”

At several times during Thursday’s arguments, judges questioned whether they should decide on the constitutionality of the state law at this time. Perhaps, the judges said, the court should wait until a city raises its minimum wage to justify a legal challenge.

Fields argued that because the minimum wage petition was kept off the ballot because of the new law, the court must rule on its constitutionality.

Even if the state Supreme Court rules that the ballot measure was incorrectly taken off the ballot, it’s too late for the measure to be put before voters this year. It would have to wait until local elections are held next spring.

Also Thursday morning, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a minimum wage case from St. Louis.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted to raise the local minimum wage to $11 an hour. They argued they had the legal authority to do so because the law approved by the Missouri General Assembly last year stated that it would not impact any local ordinance enacted before Aug. 28.

St. Louis passed its increase before the deadline, but a coalition of businesses and business groups filed a lawsuit trying to get it overturned.

“The city doesn’t have the authority to do this,” said Jane Dueker, the attorney arguing on behalf of the businesses who filed the lawsuit. “They want to do something illegal.”

Dueker argued that if the St. Louis ordinance were allowed to stand, employers who abide by state law would be breaking local law.

John Rehman II, who represented St. Louis on Thursday, said the General Assembly approved the new law with a provision allowing local ordinances to stand if they were approved before Aug. 28. That, he said, was the legislature’s acknowledgment that local governments had the authority to do so.