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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: Stenger says St. Louis County won't go along with city push to raise minimum wage

Supporters of a city minimum wage hike sit through a hearing of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen Ways and Means Committee.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Supporters of a city minimum wage hike sit through a hearing of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen Ways and Means Committee.

St. Louis’ efforts to raise the minimum wage of $7.65 have sparked a host of questions. One of the biggest is whether St. Louis County would follow suit. It's a pressing concern because some businesses have said they would move to the county if the city approves Alderman Shane Cohn's bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has now provided a definitive answer to that question: No.

St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger said his transition into his new office is going much more smoothly than last week.
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger says the county cannot legally pass a countywide minimum wage hike.

"While I support efforts to raise wages for our working families, our charter does not allow for a countywide minimum wage," Stenger said Friday in a telephone interview.

As the city considers a minimum wage hike, some of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's allies, including the mayor's political guru Richard Callow, have suggested that the city's action wouldn't occur in a vacuum and that the county would follow the city on the issue. Cohn made a similar point, noting that raising the minimum wage has broad appeal across the state -- and in St. Louis County.

But after seeking an opinion from the county's legal counsel about the issue, Stenger concluded that the county could conceivably raise the minimum wage only in unincorporated St. Louis County -- not across the 90 municipalities. 

He said that would be impractical. 

"It would be a really messy situation," Stenger said. "You would have pockets of different wages. And that’s not good public policy. And our areas of unincorporated St. Louis County are really distributed throughout the county. We have a very large pocket south and a very large pocket north, but we really have pockets west and all over the county really.

"Very practically speaking, we have a legal impediment that would not allow us to establish a countywide minimum wage," he added.

Stenger said St. Louis County possesses very limited powers to regulate the affairs of municipalities, with the exception of health -- such as a countywide smoking ban.

"That’s the only area where the county can legislate countywide. It’s health," Stenger said. "And there’s a direct nexus between the smoking ban and health. That falls right within that category so that’s why we’re able to do that. But there’s no countywide provision regarding wages in our charter."

Stenger's comments could be a blow to the city's efforts to raise the minimum wage -- and it certainly sounds the death knell to any effort to tie a city minimum wage hike to county action. Stenger said that type of change to Cohn's bill would basically legislate "no minimum wage because we cannot set a minimum wage in St. Louis County."

And even if Stenger and the St. Louis County Council could raise the whole county's minimum wage, there may be an incentive for them to do nothing. 

Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, says the city's minimum wage push won't bleed over into the county. He also questions whether the city can legally raise its minimum wage


That’s the view of St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder, a Ballwin Republican who says county leaders “will ignore pressure” from what he calls the city’s “political stunt.” In fact, Harder said, the broader message of the city’s minimum wage hike is “come on over to St. Louis County and we’ll help you grow your business.”

“If there are businesses that can’t survive by raising the minimum wage, we’ll welcome them into St. Louis County,” Harder said. “St. Louis County is open for business 24 hours a day – and we’ll take those businesses.”

Chamber weighs in

The difference in opinion between leaders in the city and county isn’t the only dividing line in the debate. 

Last week, the St. Louis Regional Chamber came out against the city's minimum wage proposal. Hart Nelson, the chamber’s public affairs director, cited the further “fragmentation” of the St. Louis region as a reason for his organization’s opposition.

“We have a patchwork of local governments and regulation,” Nelson said in a telephone interview. “And if it’s undertaken in isolation by St. Louis or any other city without looking at the overall effects on the surrounding region, we think that’s a problem. And it’s absolutely going to complicate what we have already.”

Nelson also said the chamber is also concerned about the unsettled legal question of whether a city may raise its minimum wage. That's likely to be litigated, he said, regardless of how Gov. Jay Nixon acts on legislation that bars cities from raising their minimum wages.

“If we get into a litigation situation where the city passes this bill and there are lawsuits filed challenging whether the city has grounds to do that, that’s just going to extend the uncertainty. We’re talking about weeks, months, probably years of court proceedings before employers in the city and county know what the city is allowed to do.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that the chamber, which represents the city’s business community, would oppose Cohn’s bill. But its opposition could give pause to some undecided aldermen.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay
Credit Alex Heuer I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay

For his part, Slay said in a statement that “in a perfect world, we would not have to pursue an increase in the minimum wage in the city because state and federal policy makers would already have done that.”

“Unfortunately, they have not,” he said. “So the city is leading.” 

Slay added that the chamber should support raising the minimum wage on a state level; he hoped the organization would be “relentless in its pursuit of state and federal policies that reward hard work and ensure that people who work full time don't have to raise their children in poverty.”

In response, Nelson said his group was committed to helping close educational and economic gaps – just not through Cohn’s bill.

“Any effort that is going to improve prosperity throughout our region is something that is worthy of pursuing in dialogue,” Nelson said. “We think other public and private policies may be more effective in bringing this greater prosperity around.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.