When the Minnesota Supreme Court considers an appeal from the city of Minneapolis on Tuesday over a minimum-wage proposal, its decision could have ramifications that stretch far beyond the right of city voters to set wages.
If the state’s highest court upholds a lower-court ruling that the charter amendment proposal must appear on the November ballot, it would mean that Minneapolis voters will be able to decide whether the city should increase its minimum wage to $15 per hour, making it one of the highest in the country.
But it could also do something more far-reaching: open the doors to more campaigns looking to change municipal government by popular vote. With more than 100 Minnesota cities governed by local charter, the court’s decision could set a precedent for ballot proposals in cities from Bloomington to Bemidji.
In Minneapolis, where advocates have been working for months to make minimum wage a leading issue for both council members and the city’s residents — and business owners, already grappling with a new sick-leave ordinance are fearing additional mandates — emotions are high on all sides of the issue.
But with the matter tied up in the courts, some are now more concerned about the route being used to get the minimum wage question addressed than the topic itself.
Council Member Jacob Frey, who voted with the majority of council members to block the minimum-wage proposal from the ballot, said he believes strongly in increasing the city’s base wage. But he contends that the issue is not a proper subject for an amendment to the city’s charter, a document that sets out the broad structure and powers of municipal government. He fears that legislating wages by popular vote could result in more issues being determined by groups with the most money and political muscle.
“There’s value in digging into the nitty-gritty, doing engagement, having tough conversations that certainly don’t make you more popular but result in a thoughtful, functional ordinance,” he said. “And legislating complex issues via referendum punts that process.”
On Friday, the League of Minnesota Cities filed a legal brief in support of Minneapolis’ appeal. Tom Grundhoefer, the organization’s general counsel, said he couldn’t discuss the case in detail because it was ongoing.
“We’re concerned enough about it to weigh in on the case,” he said.
In some states, like Oregon, California and Colorado, voters have a broad ability to propose and pass laws through the ballot, by referendum and initiative. But in Minnesota, the window of opportunity for such actions is much smaller. Residents in cities like Minneapolis, governed by a home-rule charter, can launch petition campaigns for a popular vote — but only to amend the city’s charter. Specific ordinances, meanwhile, are passed and amended only by the council.
After struggling to pick up enough traction inside City Hall, Minneapolis minimum-wage advocates with 15 Now Minnesota, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change seized on the charter amendment as the vehicle to get quicker action on the issue. They launched an extensive petition drive, gathered well over the required number of voter signatures, and for the first time forced a significant council conversation on wages. And while the council eventually followed City Attorney Susan Segal’s advice to deny the issue from reaching the ballot, it did vote to begin drafting a minimum-wage ordinance to be considered in early 2017.
But advocates, fearing that the council would again delay the issue or set the minimum wage at less than $15 per hour, rejected that plan and appealed the council’s decision. A Hennepin County judge sided with the advocates, prompting the city to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Supporters of the wage hike have launched a major election campaign, drawing a growing number of volunteers and donations of all sizes. A few days after the city filed its appeal, the Minnesota Nurses Association wrote 15 Now Minnesota a check for $20,000.
Ginger Jentzen, executive director for 15 Now, said wage disparities in the city amount to a major issue that needs to be addressed immediately. She said the Hennepin County judge’s decision was “quite decisive” and that the city’s efforts to appeal the case are more about trying to stop higher wages than about the broad legal questions officials have raised. Jentzen noted that the city has hired outside legal counsel to assist with the appeal. City officials confirmed that attorneys from the firm of Lockridge Grindal Nauen will serve as co-counsel at Tuesday’s hearing.
“It’s really just a matter of when it comes to big businesses’ interest, the city is willing to defend them at all costs,” Jentzen said.
She said she doesn’t believe that a win for her group would create a major spike in issues going to the ballot or that by putting the minimum wage on the ballot the city will skip over the nuances of drafting a major policy. She said the council will still play a big role in developing the system to carry out a minimum wage requirement, should the charter amendment go to the ballot and pass.
“The biggest thing is no one who works should be living in poverty in the city of Minneapolis, and we aim to put it to voters to decide,” she said.
But others — even some who count themselves as strong supporters of a higher city minimum wage — are not convinced.
Among them is another labor leader: Javier Morillo, president of the SEIU Local 26, a union that represents thousands of janitors, security guards and window washers. Morillo said he is very supportive of a higher minimum wage — and of the efforts by 15 Now and other advocates to push the issue to the forefront. For the first time, he said, it appears the council has a sense of urgency to address wages in the city, a major change he attributes directly to those pushing for the charter amendment.
But Morillo said he worries that a victory for those wanting the amendment on the ballot could spell problems in the future. Groups with very different goals, he said, could find it just as easy to raise their issues through a charter amendment, forcing progressive advocates to go on the defensive.
“The campaign has done phenomenal work to shift the terrain on this question, and so that is fantastic,” he said. “I have only good things to say about that work. But I think at this point when we’re getting to the question of how does it get done, I think the risks are great.”