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Supporters of Missouri minimum wage hike hope for a replay of 2006's victory

Supporters of raising St. Louis' minimum wage listen to testimony Tuesday at St. Louis City Hall.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

A decade after their last successful effort, Missouri backers of a higher minimum wage believe that 2016 may finally be their year for a successful replay.

“The ground is shifting really quickly in this country around the minimum wage,’’ said Lara Granich, Missouri director for the St. Louis-based group called Jobs With Justice. “The momentum is really growing, month by month.”

So far, Jobs With Justice has filed 10 initiative-petition proposals with the Missouri secretary of state that call for an increase in Missouri’s minimum wage, now $7.65 an hour.

Three – submitted six weeks ago – have been cleared for circulation to collect the needed signatures from registered voters. The other seven were filed a few days ago and are awaiting approval.

The 10 proposals all seek to hike the state’s minimum wage, but they differ on the specifics. The proposed new minimum wage in all of them would swiftly increase to $9 an hour, with phased-in future increases ranging from $11 to $15 an hour. The phase-in periods span several years.

Some of the proposals stipulate increases for tipped workers such as waitresses and valets, while others do not.

Granich said her group and its allies have yet to decide which, if any, of the proposals they will circulate to obtain the needed signatures from registered voters to get the proposal on the 2016 ballot.

They would need to collect somewhere in the range of 92,000 to almost 100,000 signatures since they are seeking a change in state law. The signatures must come from at least six of the state’s eight congressional districts, with the exact number depending on which districts are chosen.

(A proposed constitutional amendment would require far more, around 160,000 signatures.)

Their decision, she said, will depend on whether state legislators take up the issue when the next session begins in January.

The group also has formed a campaign committee, Give Missourians A Raise, to raise money.

The opposition, which includes the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also is preparing to gear up as well.

2006 campaign’s success yet to be duplicated

Jobs With Justice was aligned with labor, teachers unions and religious groups for the successful 2006 effort that put in place the state’s current yearly increase in its wage – now 40 cents more an hour than the federal wage.

Some critics contended then, and now, that part of the minimum-wage drive was aimed at attracting more Democratic-leaning voters to the polls. Backers say their effort is nonpartisan.

In 2006, Granich said the coalition collected the signatures quickly over a couple months, mainly using volunteer gatherers. She notes that more than three-quarters of the 2006 Missouri voters backed the wage hike, despite opponents’ contentions that it would put the state out of whack with its neighbors.

But proponents sought and failed to get higher minimum-wage proposals on the 2012 and 2014 ballots. They failed to collect enough valid signatures from registered voters, but the 2012 campaign also was plagued by a court fight that delayed the signature-gathering process.

Those earlier proposals called for lower minimum-wage hikes than the ones being proposed for 2016.

As far as critics are concerned, the amount of increase isn’t the issue. Brian Bunten, the state chamber’s general counsel, explains that any one of the initiative proposals “flat-out places Missouri at a disadvantage compared to neighboring states.”

A higher labor cost, he said, “could be the difference in whether a small-business owner keeps their doors open or not.”

If the state has a dramatically higher minimum wage than the surrounding states, Bunten predicted that businesses will move out of Missouri or refuse to move in.

The chamber also has opposed proposals in Kansas City or St. Louis to increase the local minimum wage, saying it’s bad for Missouri to have a patchwork of minimum wages in different parts of the state.

Bunten concedes that the minimum wage is “a hot topic’’ nationally, and blames the West Coast’s focus on the issue.

Some cities, especially on the West Coast, have debated increases in the minimum wage – actions he believes have influenced Missouri supporters of a higher wage.

“I wasn’t surprised that they’re trying to circumvent the legislature,” he said, since Republican legislative leaders have clearly said they don’t support hiking the state’s minimum wage.

The GOP-controlled General Assembly also passed a bill last session, HB722, to bar cities from raising the minimum wage, but Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed it. It’s unclear if that measure will be brought up for a possible override during the September veto session.

Regardless of what happens during veto session, Bunten and the Missouri Chamber expect the battle over the minimum wage to continue. So does Granich and Jobs With Justice.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.