The state Senate’s top leader is suggesting that Minnesota voters decide an issue that has divided DFLers in the House and Senate: whether the state minimum wage should automatically rise with inflation.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Thursday he’s co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment that, if it makes it to the November ballot, would ask voters to decide whether future minimum wages should be linked to increases in the cost of living.
Democratic House and Senate negotiators have agreed on an increase in the state minimum wage from the current $6.15 an hour to $9.50. But they are stalled over the desire by House DFLers to include the automatic inflation adjustment, which Bakk has repeatedly said lacks support among his fellow Senate Democrats. DFLers hold majorities in both chambers.
The negotiators met briefly Thursday, with the Senate side quickly rejecting the latest House offer, which included the inflation index. Bakk said he’s getting behind the constitutional amendment proposal in part to help break the stalemate.
“I think voters would go for it,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook.
Putting the inflation index in the state Constitution would take it out of the political arena, Bakk said. He said that if it were only in statute, then Republicans upon regaining a House or Senate majority in the future would repeal the automatic inflater and force Democrats to bargain on an issue of great importance to their labor allies.
“It would be a bargaining chip at the end of every session,” Bakk said.
But the proposal went over with a thud among leading House Democrats.
“We should be able to do that in the Legislature,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. He added: “I am not sure that the minimum wage is something that fits in the Constitution.”
Gov. Mark Dayton also opposed the constitutional route.
“The governor strongly supports raising the minimum wage to $9.50 with indexing and doing that in law through the legislative process,” said Matt Swenson, a Dayton spokesman. “He is opposed to doing it through the constitutional amendment process and thinks we should not put anything on the ballot this year.”
The coalition of labor and other progressive groups seeking the wage hike and inflater called the new Senate proposal a bad idea. The groups “do not support legislating by constitutional amendment. Minnesotans elected legislators to govern,” said Peggy Flanagan, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota and a co-chair of the Raise the Wage Coalition.
Bakk himself recently introduced another constitutional amendment, one that would make it harder to put future amendments on the ballot by requiring a supermajority vote of both the House and Senate. Currently, only simple majorities are necessary.
But he said the minimum-wage proposal meets his own standards as important enough to put in the Constitution, and a Bakk spokesman said the senator thinks it’s possible the proposal could achieve legislative supermajorities.
That could be a tall order, with House and Senate Republicans lined up against the minimum wage increase and the indexing provision particularly.
Rep. Ryan Winkler, the chief House DFL negotiator on the minimum wage bill, said he took the new Senate proposal as a sign that the Senate is open to linking future wage increases to inflation or some other measure.
“I choose to interpret that to mean we are now having a conversation about that,” said Winkler of Golden Valley.
The proposed constitutional amendment on wages is sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, with Bakk as a co-sponsor. Bakk said that he has not yet polled his fellow Senate Democrats on the issue, but that he thinks it should be part of ongoing negotiations over the minimum wage bill.
Rest’s amendment is scheduled to be heard Friday at a hearing of the Senate Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
Reporter Baird Helgeson contributed to this report.