Minnesotans conveyed several messages with their constitutional amendment votes in November 2012. One that we heard — and applauded — is that they don’t want to clutter the state Constitution with partisan-tinged policy matters that the Legislature has ample authority to address via statute.
State Senate DFL leaders seemed to agree at the time. We wish they still did.
A constitutional amendment to index the state minimum wage to inflation beginning in 2017 shot out of a Senate committee on Friday on what appeared to be an all-DFL voice vote. The measure would pluck what has become the most contentious feature of the wage floor proposals — an automatic inflation adjustment — out of the hands of House and Senate conferees and boot it to the state’s voters in November.
Like the rejected amendments in 2012 — one to ban same-sex marriage, another to require a government-issued photo ID to vote — the minimum wage’s relationship to inflation is very much within the Legislature’s purview. It has nothing to do with state government’s foundation or function.
The 2012 amendments arrived on the ballot because the Legislature and the governor were at odds, and a governor’s signature is not required to send a proposed amendment to the voters. The new wage amendment, by contrast, is an attempt to resolve a quarrel between House DFLers, who favor allowing inflation to automatically raise the state’s wage floor, and Senate DFLers, who don’t.
That disagreement has become a major roadblock to raising the minimum at all. Conferees started meeting nearly one year ago to resolve the differences between the House’s bill for a $9.50-per-hour minimum plus indexing, and the Senate’s $7.75-per-hour bid, without the inflation tie. (The state’s minimum today is $6.15 for large employers and $5.25 for small ones; the federal minimum is $7.25.)
Senate conferees this year agreed to $9.50, but until last week they opposed the inflation autopilot. We share that view. Putting the minimum wage on an automatic escalator increases the likelihood that it will rise at the start of a recession, leading to more layoffs than might otherwise occur.
Another, less-principled objection to indexing is evidently also on Senate minds. As Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said at a meeting of the Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, the reason senators who oppose indexing are nevertheless willing to let voters insert it into the Constitution is “so we don’t tie up the Legislature year after year after year with this issue.” A statutory tie to inflation, as the House favors, would not settle the matter, as its advocates claim. Instead, she predicted, whether or not to allow an automatic increase to go forward would be an unwelcome point of contention in every future session.
In other words, Senate DFLers who don’t like indexing are nevertheless willing to give voters a chance to lodge this bad idea in the Constitution so it stays out of legislators’ hair. That’s logically convoluted. It’s also reckless lawmaking.
That said, it’s possible that the Senate’s move will yield a positive result. The opportunity to tie wages to inflation in perpetuity could raise needed questions about its long-term advisability. What would happen to wages if inflation were to stay near zero for a period of years? What if a severe recession produced price deflation? Would wages fall, making a bad recession worse? The answers to those questions should cool the already chilly reception the Senate’s amendment idea is receiving in the House.
The all-DFL minimum-wage conference committee has thus far succeeded only in revealing that partisan differences are not the only ones that are hard to bridge in today’s Legislature. The House has given little ground in talks to date. It must appear to low-wage Minnesotans that compromise is a lost legislative art. This conference committee has a chance in coming days to change that impression. We hope they do so without involving the state Constitution.