Editorial: Kansas City Council should move on minimum-wage increase

There’s a chance the Missouri legislature will make local minimum wage hikes illegal. But there’s an alternative.
There’s a chance the Missouri legislature will make local minimum wage hikes illegal. But there’s an alternative. along@kcstar.com

The Kansas City Council has an important opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of residents — but it must move quickly.

The City Council should consider and approve an increase in the local minimum wage. How much of an increase is a significant and complicated question.

The possibility of raising the minimum wage dropped into the council’s lap Tuesday when the Missouri Supreme Court said a wage hike in St. Louis met legal muster. The opinion was emphatic: Since the General Assembly has not “occupied the field” of minimum wage laws, charter cities can take action, the court said.

The ruling clears the way for an August election that would give Kansas City’s voters a chance to increase the minimum wage from its current $7.70 an hour to $10 an hour. The rate would eventually cap at $15 an hour.

But August might be too late. There’s a chance the Missouri legislature will address the court’s ruling and once again make local minimum wage hikes illegal. A bill to do just that was introduced Wednesday. A hearing is set for Monday.

The measure contains an emergency clause. If it passes, the bill would go into effect as soon as the governor signs it.

There’s an alternative the City Council should consider: Raise the minimum wage now. That would lock in the wage increase before the legislature acts and could potentially take the issue off the August ballot as well.

Enacting the full increase proposed by petitioners would infuriate restaurant owners and minimum wage employers, of course. The ballot proposal calls for an immediate 30 percent hike in the city’s minimum wage. In fact, restaurant owners would likely launch their own petition drive to rescind the increase if the council approved such a measure.

To all parties, we offer a suggestion: The council should move swiftly to approve a minimum wage increase, but one that’s phased in more slowly and is smaller than the proposal on the August ballot — say, with a top rate of $13 an hour.

The August petitioners would complain about the lower wage. But they might trade the certainty of a $13 wage for the mere possibility of a $15 wage. And it would put $13 on the books before the legislature acts.

Restaurant owners and other minimum-wage payers would have a similar incentive to compromise. By supporting a smaller increase now, they would avoid the risk of a much higher voter-approved wage in August.

After all, there’s a chance the legislature won’t act this session, making $15 a possibility. And a judge could throw out the emergency clause.

Finally, Mayor Sly James and the council would benefit from an agreement.

In just a few weeks, they’ll ask voters to approve higher property taxes. A wage increase would send a strong signal that the City Council wants to put money in residents’ pockets, not just take it out.

Council members have said they support higher wages but couldn’t act because of state law. Their bluff has been called. If they fail to act, it sends a signal, too.

Reaching an agreement among competing parties will require leadership. But all sides — and the Kansas City community — would benefit from the certainty of a higher minimum wage.

The court’s decision makes that option available, and the city’s leaders should seize it.