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Why the state Supreme Court should rule that a ballot vote for a $15 minimum wage is legal

If it decides the issue correctly, the court will reject old, wooden, out-dated conceptions of the law.

The decision to place the $15 minimum wage on the ballot in Minneapolis is up to the Minnesota Supreme Court. And it all comes down to what is considered to be a legitimate local municipal function under state law. If it decides the issue correctly, the court will reject old, wooden, out-dated conceptions of the law and conclude that a legitimate municipal function includes  promoting the public welfare of its citizens through establishing minimum wage laws.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

In her decision ordering the “Vote for 15 MN” charter amendment to be placed on the ballot, Judge Robiner’s decision turned on an interpretation of Minnesota Statutes, §410.07, which declares that permissible content for charter amendments extends to “any scheme of municipal government not inconsistent with the constitution, and may provide for the establishment and administration of all departments of a city government, and for the regulation of all local municipal functions, as fully as the legislature might have done before home rule charters for cities were authorized by constitutional amendment in 1896.”  The City of Minneapolis did not argue that the Vote for 15 MN amendment was unconstitutional or preempted by state law, although that could be an issue central to the Supreme Court’s resolution of the issue.

But the core issue is whether charter amendments should be narrowly construed to address only the structure of government, such as size or powers of the City Council, or can they extend beyond that to address what looks like policy issues normally reserved for ordinances. Thus, what is a legitimate local municipal function?

‘All municipal functions’

Robiner resolved the dispute by resorting to a traditional canon of statutory interpretation in arguing that § 410.07 should be read in a way to give effect to all the words and clauses in the law. To read the breadth of “all municipal functions” as merely repetitious of the content of what charter amendments may do when it comes to addressing “any scheme of municipal government” would fail to give effect to all of the statute’s language. This is good argument, yet her conclusion rendering “all municipal functions” as essentially allowing charter amendments to serve as initiatives or referenda is certain to be met with skepticism by the Supreme Court. A better route would have been to argue that the reading the City of Minneapolis forces on “all municipal functions” is simply outdated.

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Take us back to the 19th century. At that time there were two legal principles that guided municipal law. The first was Dillon’s Rule. Dillon’s Rule came from court decisions in Iowa, and it declared that local governments only had narrowly defined powers that were either expressly in or implied by state law. Cities had no inherent powers of their own, as they were legal creatures of the state. These legal propositions were also true in Minnesota. However, Home Rule constitutional and statutory provisions, across the country and in Minnesota have significantly changed if not eviscerated Dillon’s Rule. Now in Minnesota, and across the country, home rule cities enjoy broad powers; in many cases they have acquired similar powers as acquired by state legislatures, unless otherwise preempted by state law.

A second major legal change involves what is considered a legitimate municipal function. More than 100 years ago, housing codes or zoning ordinances were not considered legitimate municipal functions. Providing for sanitation, fire protection or other regulations to serve the public would not have been considered acceptable city functions in the 19th century. The law made a distinction between cities acting in the governmental functions versus their proprietary functions. Maintaining a police department was a city acting in its governmental capacity; running a golf course or a recreation center was not.

Distinction has eroded

Yet nationally this governmental versus proprietary distinction has significantly eroded. In part that has happened because of an overall expansion or recognition in terms of the scope of what state governments may do. States have what is called broad police power authority to regulate to protect the health, safety, welfare, and morals of its people. The police power authority of states has expanded over time such that few would contest that they lack the authority to do things such as regulate workplaces, including setting minimum wages.

Expansion of what is considered legitimate state functions in an era of home rule means that what is considered a legitimate municipal function also has grown. There is no reason to think that cities cannot also legislate to protect the welfare of its citizens. This is a legitimate municipal function.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.   

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