Minneapolis residents may have another item to vote on at the polls this November: raising the city's minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Members of the group 15 Now Minnesota said they're tired of waiting for the Minneapolis City Council to act on calls for a higher minimum wage, so they're taking the issue directly to voters.

Along with several other community and labor groups, they plan to launch their ballot measure campaign at a Feb. 27 rally and begin gathering the approximately 7,000 signatures they'll need to get the issue on the November ballot.

The results of a city study on a wage hike won't be available until summer, and some council members said in a Wednesday meeting that they're not certain the city has the legal authority to raise the minimum wage.

But organizers with 15 Now said supporters want to build on momentum around a variety of social and workers' issues, including local movements around sick-leave ordinances.

Plus, the group wants to act quickly so the topic can be on the ballot in a presidential election year — a time when more people show up to vote.

"We want to bring it to voters, to the people of Minneapolis and let them have their say on it," said Kip Hedges, a 15 Now organizer.

As other large cities have raised their minimum wage — up to $15 in places like Seattle and San Francisco — activists have pressed local officials to do the same. They have pointed to the city's significant racial disparities in income, education, housing and the workforce and said higher wages could provide a specific way to improve the lives of many people of color.

Minnesota's minimum wage for workers at large businesses went up to $9 per hour last year and will rise to $9.50 in August. For workers at small businesses, the rate is $7.25 per hour and will rise to $7.75.

Research continues

The city has been researching the topic since at least 2014, when Council Member Alondra Cano said she would support a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis.

Mayor Betsy Hodges said in early 2015 that she would not support a citywide wage increase, instead favoring hikes at the regional or state level. Some council members have expressed support for higher wages, but few have backed a specific dollar figure. In September, the council voted to set aside $150,000 for a study on the potential impact of a higher minimum wage in the city or the metro area.

The council voted Wednesday to authorize a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota, Howard University, Rutgers University and the Economic Policy Institute to complete the study this spring, but some council members said they remain uncertain about the city's ability to make any changes.

Council President Barb Johnson and Council Member Blong Yang said they want a legal opinion from the city attorney, while Council Member Jacob Frey gave his own interpretation of state law: It doesn't expressly prohibit cities from making wage ordinances, but it doesn't definitively grant that right, either.

"The legality of a municipal minimum wage is presently gray," he said. "I believe you could offer both sides relatively well."

Others wanted a more specific answer. Council Member Lisa Goodman said she was surprised the council needed to make a formal request for a legal opinion from the city attorney and suggested that the lack of clarity could have to do with politics around the minimum-wage issue.

"It says, obviously, that those who don't want it are afraid of what it might say," she said.

Skipping the city

Hedges and fellow organizer Ginger Jentzen said that while the council's reaction has been mixed, they've found widespread support from Minneapolis workers and residents, including some business owners. Jentzen said the city's hiccups over sick leave and scheduling proposals have made it clear that supporters of higher wages should skip over the city to make progress.

"There's pretty widespread frustration that this could be gummed up in a bureaucratic process," she said.

Organizers with 15 Now said they intend to reach out to businesses concerned about hardships created by paying higher wages to share the stories of business owners in cities that already have boosted pay. They'll also be heading to DFL caucuses to try to pass resolutions of support for the issue, and take the campaign to surrounding communities.

"On a certain level, we agree with Mayor Hodges that a regional approach is the way to go," Hedges said. "But we'd like to see her join in the effort in Minneapolis and then take it to her counterparts in St. Paul."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790