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Slay unveils minimum wage push amid murky legal environment

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay wants to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. But the big could run into legal problems if Gov. Jay Nixon doesn't sign a bill authorizing increases before August 28.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay wants to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. But the big could run into legal problems if Gov. Jay Nixon doesn't sign a bill authorizing increases before August 28.

St. Louis’ political leadership will make a quick attempt to raise the city’s minimum wage, a public policy initiative they contend is economically and morally just.

But whether the city possesses the authority to raise its minimum wage is something of a moving target – and could depend on whether a bill that many Democrats despise is enacted into law.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay officially unveiled his support of raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. It would exempt businesses that either make less than $500,000 in gross sales or employ fewer than 15 workers.

Flanked by city aldermen, activists and supportive businessowners, Slay told reporters Thursday that workers “should be able to cover the basics for themselves and their families – so long as they are willing to work hard.

“If a single mother is working two or three jobs to make ends meet, she’s able to spend very little time raising her children,” Slay said. “So we shouldn’t be so surprised when they fall in the wrong crowd and get into trouble with the law. That creates a very vicious cycle.”

The bill’s sponsor – Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward – said the state’s minimum wage of $7.65 an hour “is not enough to survive.”

“That is not enough for a single individual to put a roof over their head or food in their stomach – let alone provide for a family,” Cohn said. “It is a moral imperative that this country take a serious look at how we treat our workers. I, as an American, do not believe that anyone who works a full-time schedule should have to struggle with basic realities of life.”

Some business groups – including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce – have opposed minimum wage increases, contending among other things that they saddle businesses with additional costs. But Slay said raising the minimum wage could be economically beneficial.

“It’s going to be good for our city, it’s going to be good for workers and it’s going to be good for business,” he said.

Legal slam dance?

But Slay and his legislative allies may be walking a pretty thin legal tightrope to get the minimum wage increase passed. 

Minimum wage supporters watch Slay's presser. Photo by Jason Rosenbaum.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Minimum wage supporters watch Slay's presser on Thursday.

That’s because legislation known as HB722 on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk would bar cities from raising minimum wages after Aug. 28 of this year. While Slay wants Nixon to veto the bill that some Democrats chastised as “Soviet-style central control,” he added there’s enough time for the Board of Aldermen to act.

“There’s all kinds of ways to make sure that we have the debate necessary,” Slay said. “You can always have extra meetings. This is an important thing. I would certainly hope that if there is a time crunch, that the Board of Aldermen would shorten its break so we get it done on time.”

But the city's legal position gets a bit murkier if Nixon vetoes HB722 and the legislature doesn’t override his objection. That's because, if the bill's verbiage isn't in state statute, the city may not have the legal authority to raise minimum wages within its borders.

Among other legal hurdles, one of the biggest problems may be a 2014 Missouri Supreme Court decision that declared a St. Louis County foreclosure mediation ordinance unconstitutional. That ruling appears to substantially restrict charter counties -- including, most likely, the city of St. Louis -- from enacting measures contrary to state law:

Regardless of its charter, the County remains a legal subdivision of the state. As such, it can only control “[m]atters of purely municipal, corporate concern …” and its actions “must be in harmony with the general law where it touches upon matters of state policy.” This Court has long recognized, “It is an essential element of all constitutional provisions establishing the principle of municipal home rule that the constitution and general laws of the state shall continue in force within the municipalities which have framed their own charters, and that the power of the municipality to legislate shall be confined to municipal affairs.”

If a business hypothetically sued to overturn the city's minimum wage ordinance, it could potentially argue that raising minimum wage is not a “purely municipal” concern and is not in “harmony with the general law where it touches upon matters of state policy.”

In response, Calvert sent St. Louis Public Radio a legal memorandum that stated among other things that while a state preemption “forbids a conflict with state law, it does not prohibit extra regulations at the municipal level.” Calvert also wrote the fact that St. Louis possesses the same powers as charter counties “gives the city broad authority to regulate business conduct that impacts the health welfare, and well being of those who live and work here.” 

Calvert went on to say the fact that the legislature banned local minimum wage increases after Aug. 28 is a tacit acknowledgment that cities did have such authority.

“There is a state minimum wage statute, but that statute simply sets the floor for hourly wage – it does not provide that the only permissible wage is the minimum wage, it does not grant the state authority to prescribe a comprehensive wage scheme for all workers, and it does not prohibit or regulate wages that exceed the state minimum wage rate,” the memorandum states.

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