Ballot plan for minimum wage advances

Published 5:56 pm Saturday, March 29, 2014

ST. PAUL — Despite a collection of traditional adversaries aligning in opposition, Democratic senators advanced a proposed ballot measure to let voters resolve a legislative deadlock over the minimum wage.

A Senate jobs panel endorsed a constitutional amendment on a party-line vote over the objections of business, labor, faith and other advocacy groups. The measure would let voters decide if increases in the minimum wage should be automatically tied to inflation starting in 2017.

Ben Gerber, who handles labor and management issues for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, led off the parade of opposition testimony. He said the question is one for lawmakers, not voters.

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A representative of the AFL-CIO echoed Gerber, a rarity given the two groups are divided over the underlying plan to increase the minimum wage. The chamber — and other business groups — have argued against a sharp increase in the wage for fear of making Minnesota a regional outlier and hardship on small companies. Unions have made a higher floor wage their leading priority, arguing the state has fallen behind and purchasing power for those earning it has eroded.

Others argued the putting the issue on the ballot would set off a contentious campaign fight.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said the message was clear to her that the ballot idea was unpopular. “We should listen,” she said.

The proposal from Senate leaders was cast as an alternative to putting an automatic escalator in law, which they argue is too easy to change by future lawmakers. Legislators are primed to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2016 from its current $6.15. But putting in a clause to keep the wage rising after 2016 has split the House and Senate, where leaders say they lack the votes to go that route.

“We’re offering this path as an opportunity to break that logjam,” said Sen. Ann Rest, the sponsor of the proposed amendment.

Gov. Mark Dayton sounded off separately, saying he does not want any amendments on this fall’s ballot. But governors don’t get a say in what winds up there because they take only a majority vote in each chamber to prevail.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk reasserted after Friday’s committee hearing that a final bill to boost the raise won’t pass if it also has the automatic escalator known as indexing. He said supporters of indexing have a choice to make.

“Do you want to have nothing at all or an amendment? Maybe they might have a different response?” Bakk said. “I think they believe they have a chance to get it in statute.”

Of the 11 states with a minimum wage tied to inflation, all but Vermont have done so through a popular vote.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said it would be a mistake to leave indexing out.

“I just don’t know why we would pass a minimum wage and then let it deteriorate immediately,” he said.

Minnesota’s minimum wage last rose in 2005.