A month into his term, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter faces pushback on one of his biggest campaign pledges: raising the city’s hourly minimum wage to $15.
Business leaders, bruised after Minneapolis approved a wage hike last year, don’t want a repeat in St. Paul. Activists on different sides of the debate over the tip credit are gearing up for another fight. And though City Council leaders agree the minimum wage needs to be higher, they don’t agree on the number.
“The mayor is using $15 as his goal,” said Council President Amy Brendmoen. “But we’ve continued to say the question is, ‘How much, and over how much time, and for whom?’ ”
Though they say they intend to pass a wage ordinance this year, Brendmoen and Council Vice President Rebecca Noecker said they want more data and discussion before deciding what the minimum wage should be and how it should roll out. They’re waiting for a report from the nonpartisan Citizens League, which the council commissioned last year to study the minimum wage question. A preliminary report is expected this month.
Both council members said they hope a measured approach will help avoid the acrimony of minimum wage debates in other cities.
“I don’t think that the mayor and the council need to start in exactly the same place,” Noecker said. “And I think it’s fine for him to set that vision out and make it clear that that’s what he wants, and then for the council to proceed in this very deliberate, reasoned process that we agreed to a full year ago.”
In an interview Thursday, Carter reiterated his commitment to signing a $15 minimum wage into law before the end of the year and said he’s already talking to business owners, workers, unions and advocates.
“To me, there’s a strong voter-imposed, community-imposed urgency around getting this done, and very specifically around the $15 minimum wage, that I think we have to respond to,” the mayor said.
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Months before Carter was elected, people on every side of the Minneapolis minimum wage debate — advocates for $15, restaurant workers who want to count tips toward the minimum wage, business owners and chambers of commerce anxious over the change — had turned their eyes to St. Paul.
The advocacy group 15 Now Minnesota, which played a major role in Minneapolis’ minimum wage increase, wants a policy in St. Paul that’s “Minneapolis or better,” said co-director Celeste Robinson. That means $15 an hour for everyone, with no exceptions for tipped workers, youth or other groups, she said.
“In Minneapolis, it felt like an uphill battle for very much of the time, because we were taking something that was politically fringe and making it politically mainstream,” Robinson said. “Now I think it’s almost a different fight, telling people not to get complacent.”
Meanwhile, the business community is in wait-and-see mode.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce opposes a wage hike and will support pre-emption efforts at the Legislature, said Cam Winton, the chamber’s director of labor management policy. The chamber challenged the Minneapolis ordinance unsuccessfully in court last year; Winton declined to say whether they’ll do the same if a wage ordinance passes in St. Paul.
B Kyle, St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said she’s reserving judgment until people have a chance to react to the Citizens League report.
“I think St. Paul needs to have lots more opportunities for people who disagree to have hard conversations, and still come together to have them,” she said.
Sean O’Byrne, who has owned Great Waters Brewing Company since it opened in 1997, said he’s worried about keeping his businesses afloat if the $15 minimum wage passes without a tip credit — and he isn’t convinced conversations with policymakers will make a difference.
“You can talk all you want — they have to listen,” O’Byrne said. “And right now, politicians aren’t in a mood to listen. They think they know what’s right for business.”
Several other business owners declined to comment on the minimum wage discussion in St. Paul, including some who said they were worried about the backlash if they expressed opposition.
Eric Foster, co-owner of Ward 6 Food & Drink, watched the $15 minimum wage pass in Minneapolis last year and said he expects the same will happen in St. Paul this year.
Foster said he supports raising the wage, but wants business owners to have the opportunity to talk with city officials and inform the ordinance that eventually goes forward. St. Paul has an opportunity to learn from Minneapolis and do things differently, he said.
“I think we definitely have the opportunity to do it better in St. Paul,” Foster said.
Carter, Brendmoen and Noecker all said they intend to put forward a policy tailored to their city.
“We’re not starting from the Minneapolis ordinance or the Minneapolis process,” Carter said. “We have to do this in the St. Paul way.”
Still, when asked if there’s room for a wage other than $15 an hour — if something higher or lower might work better for St. Paul — Carter didn’t budge.
“I’m committed to supporting a $15 minimum wage,” he said.