This is one in a series of articles funded by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation.
Democratic lawmakers in control of the Senate introduced a new wrinkle into the state’s minimum-wage debate this week, proposing to take the contentious question of indexing the wage to inflation out of the political arena and put it in the hands of voters this fall.
In a surprise move, DFL Sen. Ann Rest and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk signed their names on a constitutional amendment this week that would ask voters if the state’s minimum wage should be raised from the current $6.15 per hour to $9.50 by 2015 and indexed to inflation starting in January 2017.
Early in the session, both chambers agreed on a $9.50 per hour level, but the constitutional amendment was introduced just as the minimum-wage conference committee again stalled on an offer to deal with concerns over indexing the wage.
“What has become the sticking point is the issue of inflation,” Rest told the Senate Committee on Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Friday morning. “Senator Bakk and I have been having any number of conversations about tax issues, but in all of those conversations we always seem to come back to talking about progress or the lack of progress on the issue of inflation in the conference committee on minimum wage.
“We are offering this path as an opportunity to break that logjam,” she continued.
Rest said 10 of the 11 states that index the minimum wage to inflation have achieved that through voter-approved measures. The proposal moved out of the Senate committee, despite unanimous opposition from both business groups and labor unions.
House Democrats also have rejected the move to put the minimum-wage issue to voters, even though DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc originally introduced the proposal earlier this year.
“I don’t really take it very seriously,” said DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, the author of the House minimum wage bill. “Members of the House are up for re-election this year. I don’t think that we believe that not doing our job and giving that issue to the public is something that is going to help us win an election. I think the voters understandably reject that idea and expect us to do the work.”
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton opposes the move, too. Any amendment needs just a simple majority to bypass his signature and go on the ballot. Democrats have been queasy about doing constitutional amendments, however, since Republicans put the gay marriage ban and the photo ID requirement on the ballot in 2012. Dayton said the issue should be settled by the Legislature.
Earlier in the week, the House made a second offer to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation using the so-called “implicit price deflator” versus the Consumer Price Index, which is a lower measure of indexing.
But senators say they don’t have the 34 votes needed to pass any bill that indexes the wage to inflation. Last year, senators passed a minimum wage of $7.75. They say moving up to $9.50 was a huge concession for members.
Rest acknowledged that the turmoil was within the Democratic legislative leadership, but she said sometimes issues are so “volatile” that it’s not unseemly to put it to the public to decide. Senators did the same last session when they approved a constititional amendment in 2016 to ask voters if an independent council should determine what lawmakers are paid.
“This might be our only path forward,” DFL Sen. Matt Schmit, a freshman from Red Wing, said in committee Friday. “We have to be open to that path.”