Government & Politics

KC mayor says only way to raise minimum wage is through statewide petition

Mayor Sly James will introduce statewide petition to raise Missouri's minimum wage

In a news conference Monday, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said he is asking for a statewide petition to gain support to increase the minimum wage in Missouri.
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In a news conference Monday, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said he is asking for a statewide petition to gain support to increase the minimum wage in Missouri.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James came out against a local minimum wage proposal Monday and predicted the only reliable way to raise the wage is through a statewide petition initiative.

In an afternoon news conference, James said he supports a higher minimum wage than the state-set floor of $7.70 per hour. But he said any local attempt to boost Kansas City’s minimum wage will simply be undercut by a Republican-led state legislature that is already moving to pre-empt any local minimum wage ordinances.

The mayor said a move by other council members to adopt and pass a local minimum wage ordinance at this Thursday’s legislative session would be meaningless.

“A lot of people believe it’s time to raise the minimum wage, and I’m one of them,” James said. “The only problem I’ve got is, passing this ordinance in a hasty manner might be good theater, might be interesting politics. It’s not what I would consider to be great leadership, and it’s not effective. It bothers me people think this means something when in reality it’s not going to mean anything.”

The state bill was heard Monday in the Missouri House Rules and Administrative Oversight Committee. It would prohibit any city from adopting its own minimum wage. The chairman of the committee, Republican Rep. Jay Barnes of Jefferson City, said he planned to vote on the bill immediately after the hearing was complete. That means the full House could debate and pass the bill this week and send it to the Senate.

James said new Republican Gov. Eric Greitens would likely sign it, making any Kansas City ordinance null and void.

James said he plans to introduce an alternate resolution Thursday that supports a statewide petition initiative for a state vote in 2018. If voters statewide approve that, James predicted, it would make it harder for the state legislature to overturn.

“If we really want to do something that’s going to help people get a higher minimum wage, then we’re going to have to do it a little bit slower but in a way that’s much more effective,” he said.

Throughout the country, voters overwhelmingly have passed minimum wage increases when asked to vote on the issue. In November 2016, voters in Arizona, Colorado, Washington and Maine passed increases. In each state, the “yes” votes for increases were greater than the vote totals for either of the presidential candidates.

Other states that have passed higher wage floors than the federal minimum include Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. Washington, D.C., voters also have approved a higher minimum, as have voters in other cities around the country such as Seattle, San Francisco and New York City — which have passed ballot measures approving up to $15 an hour.

Voter-approved measures call for stepped increases over several years, with many of them indexed to inflation — a factor that seems to appeal even to voters who reject demands for “$15 and a union.”

Voters in South Dakota last fall rejected a proposal to reduce the state’s minimum for workers under age 18, a measure that would have taken back some of the hourly wage gains approved two years earlier.

But the push for local Kansas City action still has momentum.

City Councilman Quinton Lucas said Monday he plans to introduce an ordinance Thursday to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13 per hour by 2022 — which the previous council (including James) approved in July 2015. The council repealed that ordinance in October 2015 because it thought a new state law pre-empted it.

Two Missouri Supreme Court rulings have prompted some rethinking of state law, and Lucas said he believes he will have nine votes to immediately adopt the $13 per hour minimum wage proposal Thursday. Lucas said the City Council can’t spend all its time worrying about what the state will do, or “I don’t know why we would still show up.”

An advocate for low-wage workers said Monday that a crowd is expected at City Hall on Thursday to push for a higher local minimum wage.

Vernon Howard Jr., president of the Greater Kansas City Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said civil rights, social justice and other groups believe the local fight for a higher minimum wage is moral, worthwhile and essential. They are pushing for an increase to $15 per hour by 2022.

“I disagree strongly that it raises false hope,” Howard said. “What I believe is that local municipal and civil rights groups and grass-roots and labor leaders must continue to use all means possible, including local efforts, to exercise the power and rights and authority that we have.”

This whole debate stems from the fact that the Missouri Supreme Court issued two rulings relevant to Kansas City’s minimum wage.

On Jan. 17, the Supreme Court ordered the Kansas City Council to put a petition initiative on an upcoming ballot for a higher minimum wage in the city. Complying with that court order, the council agreed Feb. 23 to place a measure on the Aug. 8 ballot seeking voter approval to gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022.

Kansas City officials said at the time that they still weren’t sure whether state law, which currently sets the minimum wage at $7.70 per hour, would eventually pre-empt Kansas City’s higher minimum wage, even if voters approved it.

But on Feb. 28, the Supreme Court issued another ruling that said the state of Missouri couldn’t bar St. Louis from establishing its own minimum wage, a decision that bolstered legal arguments that Kansas City could do the same. The state’s high court said a 1998 law prohibiting cities from adopting their own minimum wage was unconstitutional.

Then some state lawmakers said last week that they intended to adopt new legislation aimed at preventing Kansas City and St. Louis from pursuing a higher minimum wage.

So Kansas City’s advocates for low-wage workers then began urging City Council members to get out ahead of the Missouri General Assembly and adopt a higher minimum wage on their own, without waiting for the Aug. 8 vote.

The battle for a higher minimum wage also continues in St. Louis. On Monday, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay testified in Jefferson City against the legislature’s fast-tracked minimum wage restrictions. He said the city’s ordinance, which would raise the minimum wage to $11 by 2018, would help thousands of St. Louis families.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley