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Procedural victory puts minimum wage increase back on track -- for now

Aldermen Joe Vaccaro (rear standing) and Shane Cohn (front standing) debate the minimum wage increase on July 20, 2015.
File photo | Sarah Kellogg | St. Louis Public Radio

A measure that would boost the minimum wage in the city of St. Louis for most workers got back on track Friday, following a contentious Board of Aldermen debate that lasted nearly an hour.

The bill appeared dead two weeks ago when the chairman of the Ways and Means committee, Alderman Joe Vaccaro, abruptly canceled all future meetings. He told reporters at the time he saw no way for anyone to achieve a "reasonable compromise" before aldermen went on summer break.

Shane Cohn, the measure's sponsor, successfully forced the measure to the floor with a discharge motion. He needed 15 votes -- here's the roll call:

  • Ayes -- Aldermen Tyus, Flowers, Hubbard, Ingrassia, Arnowitz, Murphy, Howard, Green, Baringer, Kennedy, Davis, Spencer, Boyd, Ogilvie, Cohn, Williamson, Carter, Krewson (18)
  • Nays -- Aldermen Bosley, Moore, Coatar, Ortmann, Vollmer, Villa, Roddy, French, Vaccaro and President Reed (10)
  • Abstain -- Alderman Steve Conway (1)

"The discussion in committee stopped," Cohn said. "Therefore, we had to start examining alternatives, how we could get this through the process, allow  the debate with my colleagues to continue and make a meaningful impact for the workers on the city of St. Louis." 
Mayor Francis Slay on Thursday threw his support behind a measure that capped the increase at $11 an hour by 2020 and expanded the exemptions. Cohn was coy on how much more he was willing to give.

"As my good friend Kenny Rogers said, know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold 'em, and don’t count your money until the dealing’s done," he said. "I’d much rather listen to where people are, and what they think is in their best interest and then work with my colleagues to make those decisions."

Vaccaro took credit for forcing Cohn to even consider a compromise.

"There was no, whatever, to bring this thing down from $15," he said. "They only wanted to lengthen the time, which was unacceptable from what I understood. Even yesterday, they were at $12-something an hour. By doing what I did, at least it's gotten us down to the $11, where I think it's workable to go from there."

Vaccaro's contention that he did everything he could to hold discussions was heavily disputed by Cohn and others. In an effort to keep the measure in committee, he promised to hold three additional hearings and allow for a vote whether he liked the measure or not.

Aldermen are officially on summer break until Sept. 11, so at least two special meetings are needed to send the minimum wage increase to Mayor Slay. In a written statement, Slay said he supported Cohn's procedural move.

"Most St. Louisans support increasing the minimum wage," Slay said.  "It's good to see a strong majority of aldermen understand and support that."

House Bill 722

As aldermen debated an unrelated measure, word came down that Gov. Jay Nixon had vetoed a Republican-backed measure that would have eliminated the ability of local governments to set required wages or benefits above the federal or state minimum. It appears to exempt minimum wage ordinances passed before Aug. 28.

"In my mind, nothing changes," Cohn said. "We have a veto session after that  Aug. 28 deadline. I'd rather not wait to see whether or not that veto gets overridden. I'd rather work toward the goal of getting this passed."

But the legality of any city approving a minimum wage increase, even if that deadline holds, remains questionable. 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.

If a business hypothetically sued to overturn the city's minimum wage ordinance, it could 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."

Vaccaro, the committee chair, said attorneys had told him a suit would be filed, and the city would lose. 

City attorney Winston Calvert reisgned Nov. 18 2015
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
City attorney Winston Calvert

In a legal memo provided to St. Louis Public Radio, Winston Calvert, the city attorney, argued that while a state pre-emption “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." 

Other Nixon vetoes

The governor vetoed eight other bills Friday. They included a special tax exemption for commercial laundries, hikes in court fees with money raised used to fund local capital projects and a grant of certain police powers to private corporate security advisers. He also rejected a bill that had drafting errors, one that dealt with public employee retirement boards, one about death certificates and one dealing with insurance information. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Donna Korando started work in journalism at SIU’s Daily Egyptian in 1968. In between Carbondale and St. Louis Public Radio, she taught high school in Manitowoc, Wis., and worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the copy editor and letters editor for the editorial page from 1973-77. As an editorial writer from 1977-87, she covered Illinois and city politics, education, agriculture, family issues and sub-Saharan Africa. When she was editor of the Commentary Page from 1987-2003, the page won several awards from the Association of Opinion Page Editors. From 2003-07, she headed the features copy desk.