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Challenges to minimum wage restrictions before Missouri Supreme Court

Nearly 100 people demonstrated outside the Missouri Supreme Court shortly after two cases were argued seeking higher minimum wages in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing two cases, one from St. Louis and the other from Kansas City, seeking to allow higher minimum wages in each place.

At issue is a law enacted during last year's veto session that bars cities from enacting a minimum wage that's higher than that set by the federal or state government. House Bill 722 was passed in response to both cities seeking higher minimum wages, along with Columbia's efforts to ban plastic grocery bags.

Attorney Taylor Fields argued against the new law when the high court heard the case from Kansas City.

"House Bill 722 is in violation of Article Three, section 23, because it contains multiple subjects, in violation of the Hammerschmidt rule," Fields said. That rule comes from a 1994 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that said the state constitution requires each piece of legislation should be focued on one subject.

The other subject referred to is the provision that bars cities and counties from banning or taxing plastic grocery bags.

After the law was passed, Kansas City's election board removed a proposed minimum wage hike from a local ballot.

In St. Louis, a circuit judge struck down the city's $11-an-hour minimum wage ordinance. Attorney Jane Dueker defended the new law.

"I actually think the legislature is the appropriate party that does decide (the minimum wage), and they have expressly said this is a statewide general policy," Dueker said. "If cities are allowed, I mean, we could have, I don't know, 4,000 different minimum wages."

She continued, "I think there's a very good reason for that, because you would have so many conflicting minimum wages; you have local governmental bodies that overlap each other."

Attorney John Rehmann II disagreed. Speaking for the city, he argued that St. Louis' minimum wage ordinance should not have been tossed out.

"The General Assembly stated that local minimum wage laws shall not be pre-empted if they are in effect by Aug. 28, 2015," he said. "They recognized the power of local cities and municipalities to pass local minimum wage ordinances at least until Aug. 28, 2015."

Meanwhile, nearly 100 people demonstrated outside the state Supreme Court building in Jefferson City shortly after arguments for both lawsuits wrapped up. The group Jobs With Justice is calling on Missouri lawmakers to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The high court took no action on either case Thursday.

Earlier story: In 2015, at the two-year-mark of a fight for a national $15 minimum wage, efforts to boost the wages in St. Louis and Kansas City started gaining traction.

In August, Mayor Francis Slay signed legislation that would have increased the minimum wage in the city to $11 per hour by 2018. In Kansas City, a group disappointed with the work of its legislature got a measure setting the minimum wage at $15 by 2020 on the November ballot.

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.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay supported the minimum wage hike.

But then the courts stepped in. In St. Louis, Judge Steven Ohmer struck down the law hours before it was supposed to take effect. And in Kansas City, a judge had it removed from the November ballot. Both courts ruled that cities are blocked by the Missouri Constitution from requiring minimum wages higher than what's set by state law, currently $7.65 an hour.

On Oct. 6, the Missouri Supreme Court will consider whether individuals cities in the state can set their own minimum wages.

The particulars of all the arguments are pretty complicated, especially in St. Louis, where Ohmer ruled for the city on some counts, and for a group of businesses that challenged the law on other counts. But basically, supporters of a higher minimum wage argued that the state wage is just a floor, and courts have given cities the right to go above that. Opponents, however, point out that employers cannot follow both the state and city minimum wage laws at the same time. Because state law trumps city law, the lower wage is the one that should be paid.

The Supreme Court is hearing the case without a lower appeals court ruling because there are questions about whether some of the state laws in the case are constitutional. It will be at least a few months before the judges issue an opinion

You can read all of the minimum wage briefings here.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.