Voters could get say on minimum wage

Published 10:28 am Friday, March 28, 2014

ST. PAUL — Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk proposed Thursday giving voters power to decide whether Minnesota’s minimum wage climbs automatically.

Tom Bakk

Tom Bakk

A constitutional amendment that he and another prominent senator, Ann Rest of New Hope, put in play would ask voters this fall if the wage should be linked to inflation. Bakk said he worries that a legislatively adopted minimum-wage indexing feature could be susceptible to repeal later. He said 10 of 11 states with an automatic inflator have accomplished that through a referendum of some kind.

“The constitution is intended to protect the rights of the minority. These low-wage workers are a minority of Minnesotans. This gives them some protection that their wages would keep up with inflation,” said Bakk, a retired carpenter from Cook. “It meets my test that this is important enough that it belongs in the constitution.”

Although he has pushed this year to make it harder for measures to reach the ballot, Bakk said he wouldn’t hesitate to proceed even if it’s a party-line vote. “The choice for Republicans is: Put it in statute or do you want the voters to decide?” he said.

The proposal adds to a long-running debate about what to do after hiking the wage. There appears to be sufficient support to gradually raise a current $6.15 per hour minimum to $9.50 by 2016. Minnesota’s minimum wage last rose in 2005.

House negotiators say there needs to be an automatic inflator to keep minimum wage earners from losing ground. Senators haven’t embraced that approach. In public comments on the issue, Gov. Mark Dayton has been partial to the House plan.

Democratic Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, the chief House negotiator, said he’s not in favor of “punting to voters.”

“The constitution is a place to structure how government works to protects rights,” Winkler said. “It is not a place to pass policy.”

Bakk said he discussed the plan earlier Thursday with the president of the AFL-CIO, which has made the minimum wage bill its main priority this year. A spokesman for Shar Knutson said the idea was quickly discussed with a “Raise the Wage” coalition that had sprung up to push for a higher minimum. A statement from co-chairwoman Peggy Flanagan of the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota expressed opposition to putting it before voters.

“By passing a minimum wage bill that catches up to at least $9.50 and keeps up by indexing future increases to inflation, lawmakers can keep politics out of the minimum wage once and for all,” Flanagan said. “A ballot campaign would do the exact opposite.”

Republican Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said he also would oppose adding a wage measure into the constitution. He and other legislative Republicans have generally opposed the automatic increase feature, saying it would put a hardship on small businesses.

“I don’t think it needs to go on the ballot,” Dahms said. “It’s something that should be taken care of” by lawmakers.