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St. Louis' minimum wage push on life support after alderman cancels hearings

Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, plunged the future of a minimum wage bill into doubt after cancelling committee hearings on the issue.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, plunged the future of a minimum wage bill into doubt after cancelling committee hearings on the issue.

St. Louis’ ambitious push to raise the minimum wage may be dead after the alderman in charge of the committee examining the bill -- Alderman Joe Vaccaro -- canceled hearings.

It’s a move that caught supporters of the bill off guard and incensed staffers of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. And with a state deadline potentially looming, it may have brought a dramatic end to deliberations over the issue.

For several weeks, aldermen have been deliberating Alderman Shane Cohn’s legislation that would the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That included two hearings this week in the Board of Aldermen’s Ways and Means Committee, a venue in which some aldermen raised concerns about the measure.

On Friday morning, the person leading the Ways and Means Committee on the issue -- Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward – announced that he was cancelling additional hearings on Cohn’s bill.

When asked after Friday’s Board of Aldermen meetings if the move meant the bill was dead, Vacarro replied: “For now, it is.”

“It seems like there is no reasonable conclusion that anyone could come up with in three weeks,” said Vaccaro, referring to the aldermen's coming summer break.

The bill had attracted support from labor unions, activist groups and prominent elected officials like Slay. But it drew ire from business groups, small companies and state lawmakers who questioned the practicality and the legality of the legislation.

Vacarro said proponents of the minimum wage hike were rushing the process. He went onto say that people upset with his decision “should be upset that this wasn’t brought up in front of us six months ago or a year ago.

“To put this in front of us with three meetings to go is not fair,” said Vacarro. “We didn’t have the time to make a reasonably good decision on this. So yes, some people are going to be upset. Some people are going to be happy. I understand that. But I have to do what I feel is right for the city of St. Louis and myself and my own conscience.”

One of the people upset with Vacarro’s decision was Mary Ellen Ponder, Slay’s chief of staff. She got into a heated exchanged with Vacarro in the hallway of City Hall – pointedly asking why he gave the mayor’s staff no notice and called minimum wage supporters “disingenuous” on the Board of Aldermen floor.

Slay spokeswoman Maggie Crane read a statement from the mayor expressing dismay about Vacarro’s decision-making:

“Aldermen should use their power to take up the minimum wage bill and vote on it – a single alderman unwilling to take up the hard issue shouldn’t end debate. Marriage equality, justice, access to quality education and living wage – these are family issues that hold communities together. The city’s led the region and the state on all of them, because we want to be that different place.”

Vacarro’s decision is crucial, because of pending state legislation known as HB 722. If that bill is signed into law or the legislature overrides a veto, it could conceivably ban local minimum wage increases after Aug. 28. Vaccaro said if that bill is vetoed and there’s more time “to make a reasonable approach to this, I will.”

Cohn taken off guard

Cohn told St. Louis Public Radio that he was blindsided by Vaccaro’s decision to cancel committee hearings. He said he’d never experienced that type of treatment during his tenure on the Board of Aldermen.   

Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, speaks in favor of his bill raising the city's minimum wage by 2020.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, said he's not giving up on efforts to raise the minimum wage.

“He is saying that we don’t have enough time to do this. The president’s office has committed to having additional meetings if necessary to allow the public the opportunity to have input, to allow our legislative body the opportunity to amend as necessary to make this a more perfect bill that reflects the values of the citizens of St. Louis,” said Cohn, referring to Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. “And Alderman Vaccaro has decided not to allow that to happen.”

Some including – Aldermen Antonio French, D-21st Ward, and Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward – had expressed misgivings about the $15 an hour figure. But Cohn noted that skeptics of the legislation were willing to hash out changes to the legislation – not give up on the issue entirely.

“Folks are very cognizant that the minimum wage in the state of Missouri is too low,” said Cohn, adding that some members of the business community share that view. “By and large, they do believe that minimum wage needs to be raised. This is one tool in the toolbox to move and advance this cause forward for tens of thousands of working citizens of this city and region. And to not allow that process to move forward, I think is a dereliction of responsibility.”

Cohn said he’s plotting out his next options – including possibly moving his bill to another committee. There's also the chance that aldermen could yank the legislation out of committee with a majority vote of the Board. But that can only be done 30 days after a bill has been assigned to a committee, which in this case would be July 4.

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