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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.

Despite National Focus, Missouri Minimum Wage Vote Faces Murky Future

Erin Williams / St. Louis Public Radio

President Barack Obama sent a message during his State of the Union address to every mayor, governor and state legislator who want to increase the minimum wage: Don't wait on Congress, Americans will support more local government initiatives.

Obama’s words may resonate in Missouri, where a 2006 ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage passed overwhelmingly. But prospects for a statewide vote to raise the minimum wage this year are murky.

If a statewide vote doesn’t occur, it won’t be because of a lack of trying. This year, several Democratic legislators have filed bills to increase the minimum wage.

For instance, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed’s bill would raise Missouri’s minimum wage from $7.35 to $10 an hour. State Rep. Jeff Roorda's bill would boost it from $7.35 to $8.25. Both bills would automatically adjust the state's minimum wage according to inflation.

“People are struggling right now and people need an increase in funds today,” said Nasheed, D-St. Louis, in a telephone interview.

At the same time, Jobs with Justice submitted four minimum wage-related initiative petitions that are now approved for circulation. That group played a key role in getting the 2006 initiative on the ballot and approved by voters.

Jobs with Justice Director Lara Granich said in a telephone interview that raising the minimum wage has broad support across regional and political lines. She pointed out that the 2006 initiative passed with 76 percent of the vote and won in every single Missouri county.

“People really understand that one of the most crippling things in our economy right now is people don’t have money to spend,” Granich said. “People don’t have economic security. So they’re not able to participate fully in the economy, and that is hurting everyone.”

But success in 2006 doesn't necessarily translate to 2014.

Credit Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, is among several Democratic legislators who are pushing for a minimum wage hike. "I think I can convince the Republicans that it would be in their best interest to go ahead to vote this thing out and get it on the ballot now than later," she said.

For one thing, it’s highly unlikely that the GOP-controlled General Assembly will pass Nasheed's or Roorda's bills. Legislation to increase the minimum wage is opposed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, a group that carries plenty of weight with Republican legislators.

“The minimum wage increases that are being proposed are bad for business,” said Jay Atkins, the chamber’s general counsel. “They slow economic growth. They’re particularly harder on smaller businesses. And quite frankly, they would likely harm the very constituent group that they’re purporting to help.”

Granich says Jobs with Justice hasn’t started circulating petitions on any of the initiatives. But she stressed her group hasn't decided whether to sit 2014 out.

“It is a heavy lift to start now. However, in 2006 we started in March,” Granich said. “We started around St. Patrick’s Day when we really got rocking and rolling. So it’s not impossible. But the lift gets heavier every day.”

But Atkins said it’s “a little late in the game to start gathering signatures.” Besides, he added, it’s not a foregone conclusion that an increase would pass in 2014. The 2006 ballot item didn't have robust or organized opposition, which is important since lightly opposed ballot items typically pass without trouble.

It probably wouldn't get a free pass again. If an initiative wound up on the ballot, "I think the chamber would have to sit back and chat with our policy council and reach out to the business community and formulate a plan,” Atkins said. “I think it’s too premature to tell you that we’ve made that decision.”

Left out?

Missouri’s relatively sleepy 2014 election year could be another hurdle to getting a minimum wage increase on the ballot. 

Credit (via White House video stream)
President Barack Obama made increasing the minimum wage a major part of his latest State of the Union address.

Here’s why: The New York Times reported how Democrats are banking on minimum wage ballot initiatives to help boost turnout in states with competitive national elections – like Alaska, South Dakota, Michigan and Arkansas.

Missouri doesn’t have any competitive congressional or U.S. Senate elections this year. But national money and manpower could flow to a minimum wage initiative in 2016, when five statewide offices and a U.S. Senate seat will be up for grabs in Missouri.

Nasheed says it’s a mistake to wait for 2016. "If we want to play politics with the lives of many hard-working Missourians and decide to not do anything until 2016 because we know that’s when the turnout is needed, then that’s not what I’m about,” she said. (Granich concurred, adding “if we could do it tomorrow we would.”)

“I do believe that many Democrats would love to have it on the ballot in 2016 because it strengthens the turnout and strengthens the base,” Nasheed added. “The same way you’re going to have a major turnout from the Democratic base, you’re going to have a major turnout from the Republican base as well. Because Republicans and Democrats are struggling to make ends meet with only $7.35 an hour.”

Asked about whether Missouri’s light election cycle would make it harder to attract national money or organization to support a minimum wage initiative, Granich said “all those things are factors in where there is energy.” Other ballot items percolating in Missouri this year  – including initiatives to establish early voting – could capture the attention of groups also interested in raising the minimum wage.

“We’ve learned year after year that conditions change on a dime and just being ready for when opportunities become available is very important,” said Granich, whose group is gathering signatures on an early voting ballot item. “Missouri will be part of a big national picture .... And with voting rights shaping up, that’s one thing we’re paying attention to as well.”

In any case, if Republicans are worried that a minimum wage initiative would hurt their electoral prospects, Nasheed says the easiest solution is put it on the ballot this year when there’s less at stake. She isn't terribly optimistic that will happen.

Turnout bust?

Not everybody believes a minimum wage initiative would help Democratic turnout.

University of Missouri political science professor John Petrocik said there’s “mostly anecdotal and unsystematic evidence about the turnout effects” of ballot initiatives. Some Democrats here have argued for years that Republicans have tried to use ballot initiatives -- including ones restricting the federal health-care law and making English as the official language of government procedure -- as turnout mechanisms.

Petrocik went onto say that “big results” in elections “are linked to strong short-term forces” like public anger over corruption or an economic recession – not turnout.

“The only way you’re going to get some kind of surge in turnout is if something happening that’s getting everybody’s attention. And it’s just not clear that the fair wage initiatives are going to do that,” Petrocik said. “The people who are probably the most energized by it are people who have a pretty high turnout probability anyway. So the question is: How much more do you add to that by giving people who don’t have a high probability of turning out this kind of carrot? And what could you do? Move it a couple of a percentage points?”

Even if a minimum wage initiative makes it to the ballot, its impact on turnout could be blunted by a more high-profile ballot initiative. That's arguably what happened in 2006, when a constitutional amendment to protect embryonic stem cell research received far more attention than the minimum wage ballot item. (Though it should be noted that Democrat Claire McCaskill ousted incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., in 2006.)

Petrocik said, “Something like stem cells is a red meat issue because it really bumps into the moral and philosophical concerns that people have.” It’s not clear, he said, that minimum wage initiatives are “nearly as galvanizing.”

“The assumption behind this is that the only problem the Democrats have is there are lots of Democrats out there who don’t turn out in elections. And if they did, they’d vote for Democrats. And that’s just wrong,” said Petrocik.

“They could turn out and vote for the stem cell initiative or vote for a minimum wage and turn around at the same time and vote for their incumbent senator or member of Congress or state legislator about whom they have warm, fuzzy feelings,” he added.

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.