On Wednesday, the Minneapolis city clerk announced that workers and advocates obtained well over the required number of signatures to place a charter amendment on the November ballot that, if passed, would increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. Under state law, the city’s residents are entitled to have the measure placed on the ballot, allowing voters to decide whether to approve it.
With polls showing 82 percent support for the amendment, Minneapolis is likely to join the more than 30 cities across the nation that have raised the minimum wage at the local level in recent years. And the city could join the 12 cities, two states and the District of Columbia that all have approved a $15 minimum wage in an effort to deliver decent wages for their residents.
Opponents have suggested that the Minneapolis City Council could block this broadly popular measure from ever going before voters. The council cannot. Such a step would not just fly in the face of what city residents want, it also would violate state law.
The Minnesota Constitution gives Minneapolis residents the right to amend their charter by submitting a petition to voters. Under state law, now that advocates have obtained the legally required number of signatures, the City Council must place this matter on the ballot. While the council must set the form of the ballot, it has no authority to reject a proposal unless it is manifestly and unquestionably unconstitutional or in direct conflict with state law. Because there is no serious basis for arguing that a local minimum wage in Minneapolis would violate state law, the City Council must respect residents’ democratic right to put the measure to a vote in November.
Under something called the general welfare power — the same power that the city uses to regulate anything from the sale of liquor and cigarettes to deceptive business practices — Minneapolis can adopt ordinances or charter provisions to protect the public’s health, safety and general well-being. This power — as city attorneys in numerous cities across the country have concluded — encompasses the power to establish a local minimum wage.
The cost of living in Minneapolis, the highest in the state, provides a pressing reason for enacting a higher local minimum wage. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the cost of living in Hennepin County significantly exceeds the cost of living in most of the state and requires a single worker to earn at least $15.28 per hour to afford basic needs. A Minneapolis worker earning $9.00 per hour in a full-time job under the state’s minimum wage cannot possibly make ends meet.
A $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis not only would go far in addressing economic need, it also would help correct racial disparities in pay that plague Minneapolis, fueling glaring racial inequality. In the U.S., 42 percent of workers earn less than $15 per hour, and they are disproportionately people of color. And the bulk of economic research on the minimum wage has found that raising the minimum wage boosts incomes for low-paid workers without significantly reducing overall employment or job growth.
Although several — mainly Republican-controlled — legislatures recently have banned cities in their states from adopting higher local wages, the Minnesota Legislature has not. The state’s minimum wage sets a floor, not a ceiling, and it allows cities to set a higher rate. Minnesota courts repeatedly have upheld local measures that supplement statewide standards in this way.
If the City Council circumvents the will of the voters and refuses to place this proposal on the ballot, city residents could take their case to court. But forcing residents to go to court to safeguard their constitutional right to vote on one of the most pressing issues of the day would be a blow to the democratic process.
We encourage the City Council to put its trust in the individuals and families it represents and place the measure on the November ballot.
Laura Huizar is a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. Karen Marty is a Bloomington-based attorney and expert on local charter amendments.