Government & Politics

KC Council defies state legislature, narrowly approves increased minimum wage

In a defiant move against the Missouri General Assembly, the Kansas City Council voted 8-4 Thursday in favor of increasing the local minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2023.

Supporters said it showed their commitment to the working poor, but Mayor Sly James predicted state lawmakers will quickly prohibit the city action, and worried it could also embroil the city in more litigation.

Councilman Quinton Lucas sponsored the wage increase ordinance, which was also supported by council members Jermaine Reed, Katheryn Shields, Teresa Loar, Lee Barnes, Alissia Canady, Scott Taylor and Kevin McManus.

“We’re not 100 percent sure of the outcome,” Shields said, but she and others argued this was the city’s “last best chance” to try to adopt a higher minimum wage than the state-set minimum of $7.70 per hour.

James voted against the measure, along with council members Heather Hall, Scott Wagner and Dan Fowler.

James said he totally supports a higher minimum wage but predicted the council’s action will swiftly be undercut by a state law to pre-empt this local authority. He said the only way to accomplish a higher minimum wage in Missouri is through a statewide vote that bypasses the Missouri legislature.

“I just don’t think it’s effective, and I also think that they don’t have an understanding of the political climate in Jefferson City,” James said of those who voted for the ordinance. He’s worried the state could try to retaliate against Kansas City in a variety of ways.

Lucas’ ordinance calls for boosting the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour by Sept. 18, then to $9.82 on Jan. 1, 2019; to $10.96 on Jan. 1, 2020; to $11.98 on Jan. 1, 2021; and then to $13 per hour on Jan. 1, 2023.

Lucas said he realized legal questions continue to surround the city’s ability to adopt its own minimum wage, but that shouldn’t stop the council from doing the right thing for hard-working and struggling Kansas City residents and families.

Several dozen advocates for low-wage workers were in the audience and broke out in applause after the vote.

“We applaud the council members who made minimum wage in this city of Kansas City, Mo., a reality,” said Vernon Howard Jr., president of the Greater Kansas City Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “We will continue to carry this forward into the future.”

James offered a resolution in support of an initiative petition for a statewide vote. The council also supported that resolution, in an 11-1 vote, but the majority said they wanted to do more to show their commitment to a higher local wage.

“It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,” Shields said.

Thursday’s council debate followed by just a few hours a vote by the Missouri House, 112-46, to approve a bill blocking cities from adopting a higher minimum wage than the state-set minimum. The bill includes an emergency clause allowing it to go into effect immediately after the governor signs it into law.

It now heads to the Senate, where Republican leaders have said the legislation will be a top priority.

Over the course of two days of debate this week, House Democrats argued that the legislation was misguided and flies in the face of local control. Allowing cities with a higher cost of living to increase the minimum wage could help lift Missourians out of poverty, they said, and in the long term will boost the state’s economy.

“This isn’t about people who are too lazy to work,” said state Rep. Jon Carpenter, a Clay County Democrat. “This is about people who work two or three jobs just to get by. We should reward work.”

Democrats offered two amendments to the bill. One would have increased the state’s minimum wage to $15, while the other would have raised it to $11. Neither was approved.

Republicans argued that allowing cities to increase the local minimum wage will create a patchwork of laws that would ultimately result in small businesses being forced to lay off workers.

“We shouldn’t be making it harder to achieve the American dream,”said state Rep. Jason Chipman, a Republican from Crawford County. “We shouldn’t be creating barriers to those trying to gain a foothold in the workforce.”

State Rep. Gary Cross, a Lee’s Summit Republican, floated the idea during Thursday’s debate that if Kansas City and St. Louis leaders are concerned about the plight of the poor, they should eliminate each city’s 1 percent earnings tax. Republicans threatened to end the earnings tax last year, but the idea never garnered much traction after Kansas City leaders waged an aggressive campaign against it.

The National Federal of Independent Business, Missouri’s largest business association, and other business-oriented groups are pushing the state to block cities from setting higher minimum wages.

“On behalf of our members, I want to applaud the House for moving so quickly to offset the state Supreme Court’s wrongheaded decision,” said Brad Jones, the NFIB’s state director. “Missouri needs a single, statewide minimum wage, not a patchwork of local ordinances.”

The Star’s Diane Stafford contributed to this report.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock