Minnesota cities have regulated the kind of takeout containers restaurants can use, changed the way people vote and required businesses to pay workers a higher minimum wage and give them sick time.
Republican state lawmakers have responded with a flurry of bills to block the local rules, calling such mandates a burden on business owners. Legislators, primarily Republicans, have proposed more than 50 bills over the past two years that would limit the ability of cities to regulate what happens in their boundaries.
It’s an about-face for Republicans, who have historically opposed state interference with local rules. But progressive advocates, frustrated by the lack of state and federal action, have turned to sympathetic city leaders in recent years to tackle issues from global warming to worker’s benefits.
“What we’re seeing here is cities that are straying way out of their lane,” said Cam Winton, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which supports a bill that would block cities from raising the minimum wage or adding sick leave and scheduling regulations.
That controversial measure has not seen much discussion yet this legislative session, but many other proposals under consideration at the Capitol have prompted frustration from cities. Lawmakers are talking about prohibiting cities from using the ranked-choice voting method, repealing local limitations on what kind of takeout containers businesses use, and preventing enforcement of cities’ regulations on Uber and Lyft.
There are even pre-emptive state proposals to block ideas that have only been mentioned by city officials or candidates, not actually enacted.
When he was campaigning for Minneapolis mayor, DFL Rep. Ray Dehn discussed disarming police. This session a bill is moving forward that would prohibit cities from doing that. Some advocates have urged Minneapolis leaders to consider rent control. A few weeks ago, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, proposed a measure to block such action.
The League of Minnesota Cities has been pushing for preservation of local decisionmaking. Anne Finn, a lobbyist with the League, noted that 117 cities have signed a resolution that says they should determine what health, safety and welfare regulations best serve their constituents.
“Local elected officials are so accountable. They see their own constituents on a daily basis,” Finn said. “Let them do good work, and if they don’t do good work there’s an election around the corner.”
She describes cities as “laboratories” where good ideas can bubble up and be tested. Municipal leaders know what people in their community want to see, she said.
St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen noted that in her city the proposed switch from a traditional primary voting system to ranked-choice voting went on the ballot and was approved by voters.
“Who is asking for a change here? Nobody. This is working fine and it has no impact on state elections,” Brendmoen said. “It’s more about taking local control and less about a demand for a change.”
State lawmakers who want to block cities from using ranked voting say it is confusing, and they would like a uniform statewide voting method.
While cities should have control over things like zoning and speed limits, Winton said, local control is not inherently a good thing.
“Local control makes no sense when you’re talking about labor mandates in an interconnected economy like Minnesota’s,” he said.
Last year DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the most controversial of the so-called “pre-emption” bills, which would have created uniform labor standards. It would have eliminated Minneapolis and St. Paul’s paid sick-leave requirements and stopped cities from raising the minimum wage.
In order to pass the bill this year, Garofalo, who authored the measure, said legislators need to find out what measures Dayton wants in exchange, such as paid parental leave.
Dayton said he hasn’t had any indication from business groups that they are interested in a compromise.
“They’re trying to roll back what St. Paul and Minneapolis decided would be in the best interest of their cities ... And I think that’s a decision [the cities] have every right to make,” Dayton said.
But when the cities rolled out the sick-leave requirements they created administrative headaches for companies such as Graco Inc., which makes and sells equipment used in manufacturing and construction.
Graco is headquartered in Minneapolis but has 12 offices across the country, including ones in Rogers and Anoka. The company has to track people’s hours when they switch between the Minnesota offices, spokeswoman Charlotte Boyd said, to make sure they are complying with city rules.
Boyd said the company had already come up with a time-off solution that worked best for its employees, and the city should not impose “one-size-fits-all” sick-time requirements.
However, Javen Swanson, an associate pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul who advocated for the sick-leave requirements, said thousands of people have benefited from the change.
He said state lawmakers seem to want it both ways when it comes to sick leave and minimum wage. Supporters of a $15 minimum wage pushed for statewide action, but legislators said that wouldn’t work because the cost of living in Minneapolis and St. Paul differs significantly from greater Minnesota, Swanson said.
“We try and fail to get statewide action, and then cities lead on their own. ... Then the state says, ‘No, no cities can’t do that,’ ” he said. “It’s not actually about a patchwork of regulation. It’s about making sure we keep wages as low as possible.”
Members of the business community say that patchwork is a real concern — and one they fear will grow as other cities, like Duluth, consider their own labor laws. For companies that have multiple locations, the different rules make it difficult to operate in Minnesota, Boyd said.
Dayton said he doesn’t see that transpiring. Small towns are not going to set a higher minimum wage than neighboring communities, he said.
“The specter that they’re creating of this massive profusion of regulation is just not credible,” Dayton said.
The governor also described cities as testing grounds for ideas, such as raising the minimum wage from $9.65 per hour to $15.
“It’s going to make a huge difference in the economic well-being of a whole lot of working-class people. Is it going to drive restaurants out of business or cause them to move to Brooklyn Park? That’s part of what remains to be seen,” Dayton said. “But I just don’t see the cataclysm brewing that has been portrayed.”
Staff writer J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.