Government & Politics

KC buys time to adopt a higher minimum wage; it could happen this summer

A large crowd packed the Kanas City Council Chambers on Thursday with many in support of an increased minimum wage and others opposing it. Barbara Stubbs (left) and Mary Bay support raising the wage.
A large crowd packed the Kanas City Council Chambers on Thursday with many in support of an increased minimum wage and others opposing it. Barbara Stubbs (left) and Mary Bay support raising the wage. DPULLIAM@KCSTAR.COM

Kansas City will not be voting in August on a grass-roots petition seeking a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour by 2020.

But a modified minimum wage increase could well be in store for the city later this year.

The City Council opted Thursday not to put the petition on the Aug. 4 ballot after council members were confronted with significant business opposition and sharply divided economic analyses about the impacts of such a wage bump.

But Mayor Sly James pledged to work for some type of wage increase, and other council members said they hope to reach a decision in mid-July.

“I will be advocating for an increase in the minimum wage,” James told the crowd that had gathered Thursday expecting a vote on the petition.

The faith-based, labor and social justice groups that had collected nearly 4,000 signatures of registered voters for the ballot measure said they were satisfied with the mayor’s pledge — and they will hold the council’s feet to the fire.

“The mayor and the City Council have heard. We have a promise....that there will be a minimum wage ordinance that raises wages for working people in July. And that’s a victory,” said Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, who helped lead the petition drive.

The petition had sought to raise the city’s minimum wage above the state-set level of $7.65 to $10 per hour by Sept. 1 and to $15 per hour by 2020.

The proposal put Kansas City right in the middle of a national debate that has seen more than a half dozen cities contemplate a $15 per hour minimum wage. The Los Angeles City Council just voted Tuesday to increase that city’s minimum from $9 per hour to $15 per hour by 2020. Seattle and San Francisco have joined the trend, and it’s under consideration in New York City and Washington D.C.

Howard acknowledged his group was postponing the certainty of a Kansas City public vote, but he said a vote by the City Council would be even better — it avoids the chance that a public vote could have failed.

It also appears to take advantage of a window of opportunity in state law.

Kansas City officials previously had said that state law prohibited them from adopting any increase above the state minimum. But language in a new law passed during the latest session of the General Assembly appears to offer the city a chance to establish its own minimum wage, but only until Aug. 28. The council vote would be well within that time frame.

What comes out of the council in July may not be a boost to $15 per hour by 2020. Indeed, James said Thursday he was more inclined to support an incremental and gradual increase to $13 per hour. James said the council will begin discussions immediately with a wide variety of organizations and business groups to try to reach a community consensus on a reasonable approach for Kansas City.

The council’s decision caps a few weeks of intense debate, including more than three hours of testimony Thursday, over the merits and pitfalls of raising the minimum wage. The council heard wildly conflicting opinions over the economic impacts of raising the minimum wage to $15.

Supporters of the ballot measure said the city must do something to help the plight of the working poor. They said increasing the minimum wage has a dramatic, positive effect on families without a detrimental impact on the overall economy.

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project in New York, told the council via Skype that studies of minimum wage increases in California have shown minimal adverse impacts.

“The benefits for low wage workers and their families have been very significant,” she said.

But both local and national hotel and restaurant representatives predicted the move could cost 3,000 jobs in the city and cause an exodus of small businesses, just at the time that Kansas City is starting to emerge from the recession and gain national attention for tourism, cultural attractions and economic activity.

Opponents also said Kansas City is the only city in the region considering this dramatic wage increase, and the move could put Kansas City at a competitive disadvantage with nearby suburbs and peer cities.

Some opponents had threatened to mount an expensive campaign against any minimum wage ballot measure.

Mayor James said no one on the council thinks the current minimum wage is adequate. But he complained that the council was being forced to make a hasty decision to meet Thursday’s election calendar deadline to put the petition on the Aug. 4 ballot.

James said most cities that have raised the minimum wage have researched the economic implications and debated the issue for months or years. That hasn’t happened in Kansas City, where the minimum wage ordinance was introduced March 26 and the petitioners just got notice a week ago that they had enough signatures for the municipal ballot.

“We believe this is an absolutely horrible way to make policy decisions,” James said, pleading with the petitioners to postpone their ballot measure. “This is a huge policy decision.”

In the end, the petitioners said they were willing to wait for decisive Council action.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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