Raising Missouri’s minimum wage has widespread support but voters may not have final say | St. Louis Public Radio

Raising Missouri’s minimum wage has widespread support but voters may not have final say

Nov 1, 2018

After years of starts and stops, activists in favor of raising Missouri’s minimum wage may finally find success this year with a ballot proposition that increases the state’s wage floor from $7.85 an hour to $12 an hour by 2023.

That’s because proponents of the increase, on the ballot as Proposition B, are flush with cash, while opponents did not set up a campaign committee to raise money. Still, since the measure is a statute, critics of the plan could turn to the General Assembly to make changes.

As is the case with many minimum wage ballot items around the country, some Democrats are hoping the proposal brings more voters to the polls to vote for candidates like U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. That could be why scores of out-of-state groups have donated a lot of money to ensure the proposition passage.

Long struggle

St. Louis Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, speaks last Thursday at a news conference in support of Prop B at Bridge Bread on Cherokee Street.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri voters last raised the minimum wage in 2006, an initiative that passed overwhelmingly throughout the state.

Since that time, activists and labor unions have been pushing for a larger minimum wage increase — particularly for a boost up to $15 an hour. Proponents of a higher minimum wage found success in St. Louis and Kansas City when local officials voted to raise their respective cities’ minimum wages.

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“People’s lives depend on this,” said Rasheen Aldridge, St. Louis’ 5th Ward committeeman and a longtime proponent of raising the minimum wage. “It’s still life and death between if it’s going to be electricity or if it’s going to be rent for some folks.”

The Missouri General Assembly ended up passing a law nullifying those wage boosts, which resulted in St. Louis actually lowering its minimum wage from $10 an hour to $7.70 an hour. Currently, Missouri's minimum wage is at $7.85 an hour. If voters approve it, Proposition B would raise the minimum wage 85 cents every year until it hits $12 an hour by 2023. After 2024, the minimum wage would go up based on inflation — as is the case in current law.

“We just know it’s good policy,” said Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward. “Here in St. Louis, we know that we’ve got to pay people a wage that they can afford to live on.”

The committee seeking to raise the minimum wage, known as Raise Up Missouri, is touting support from a slew of business owners. That includes Dorothy Jones, who owns a custom clothing business in St. Louis.

“Raising Missouri’s minimum wage to $12 an hour will help employees, businesses, communities,” Jones said. “They’ll thrive. It will boost prosperity and business growth.”

Wait and see

Missouri lawmakers could potentially alter Proposition B, because it's a state statue and not a constitutional amendment.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

One rule of thumb in Missouri politics is if a ballot item does not have organized opposition spending money, then the initiative is more likely to pass.

But that doesn’t mean that both elected officials and business groups are enamored with the idea. That includes the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. Matthew Panik, the Chamber’s vice president of governmental affairs, views the proposed hike as “another mandate on employers in the state.”

“We’ll see how it shakes out,” Panik said. “These minimum wage increases are usually successful when they’re on the ballot.”

Because the increase is a proposed state statute, it is possible for the General Assembly to alter it after it passes. Republicans will continue to hold commanding majorities in the legislature after Nov. 6.

Asked if the chamber would advocate for that type of move, Panik replied: “We haven’t gone that far yet.”

Panik said that the chamber is focused more on Proposition D, which would raise Missouri’s gas tax. They’re also vigorously opposing Amendment 1, which would alter Missouri’s state legislative redistricting procedures.

“To a degree, there’s a bit of bandwidth issue,” Panik said. “We are really focused on getting Prop D passed and hopeful that will happen. That’s really a sort of core, foundational item for the chamber to increase the gas tax to help our infrastructure needs.”

Murky finances

Unsurprisingly, many Democratic political figures and groups have endorsed Proposition B — as raising the minimum wage has been a long-term goal for the party.

But some Democratic officials have been displeased with how large donations from nonprofits that do not disclose their donors flowed into Raise Up Missouri. The Washington, D.C.-based Sixteen Thirty Fund, for instance, has given that committee roughly $4.6 million since 2017. And a spokesman for the organization, which has spent prodigiously in states with competitive congressional races, has refused to reveal its donors.

That’s problematic to state Rep. Gina Mitten, especially because Democrats have been so outspoken against so-called “dark money” after the turbulent tenure of former-Gov. Eric Greitens.

“We believe there should be transparency. We believe that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Transparency should apply in all facets,” said Mitten, who supports Proposition B. “Personally, I don’t think that it matters if the money’s washed once or 10 times. It shouldn’t be washed at all.”

Raise Up Missouri treasurer Lew Prince told St. Louis Public Radio in 2017 that his group wasn’t going to simply refuse donations from groups with unknown funding sources — adding “when you see the amount of outside money that comes into this state and that will be coming in, there is no way to run a political campaign with one hand behind your back.”

Asked about the discomfort among some Democrats about how Raise Up Missouri has taken big donations from groups with unidentified donors, communications director Tony Wyche said “those folks are supporting Proposition B because they know it’s impossible for anyone in Missouri to live on $314 a week and raise a family.”

“We’re proud to have the support of everybody who wants to raise the minimum wage in the state of Missouri,” Wyche said.

Minimum wage ballot items have often popped up in states with competitive senate or gubernatorial contests. Some Democrats are hoping that enthusiasm surrounding Proposition B may help someone like McCaskill, who supports the initiative. Her opponent, Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, is against the proposition.

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