Minimum wage group vows lawsuit if lawmakers stymie vote

Pete Vargas, campaign manager for the One Fair Wage ballot initiative that would raise Michigan's minimum wage, speaks at a news conference Tuesday on the steps of the state Capitol in Lansing. The group opposes a potential Republican legislative strategy to adopt the initiative, then amend it later in the year. (AP photo)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Organizers of a ballot initiative that would raise Michigan’s minimum wage to $12 an hour said Tuesday they would sue if the Republican-led Legislature approves the proposal as a way to prevent a statewide vote this fall and then weaken it later in the year.

Mark Brewer, the lawyer for the One Fair Wage ballot committee, said the unprecedented strategy being considered by GOP lawmakers and pushed by the business community would be unconstitutional. The state constitution, he said, is “very clear” in giving legislators three options on a citizen-initiated bill.

They can adopt the proposal, making it law; reject it, putting it to a statewide vote; or propose an alternative to appear alongside the measure on the ballot.

“The Legislature has never been arrogant enough to try this,” Brewer said during a news conference on the Capitol steps, at which advocates urged lawmakers to let the public vote on the measure rather than pass it and then try to change it in their “lame-duck” session after the election.

Brewer is also the attorney for a separate ballot initiative that would require earned sick leave — which the Legislature may also approve and later amend — though he stressed he was just speaking on behalf of the minimum-wage proposal.

Business lobbyists who oppose the initiatives have said the adopt-and-amend maneuver is necessary to make them more workable, arguing that the paid sick leave wording conflicts with existing labor law and citing concerns especially with gradually eliminating a lower minimum wage for tipped workers. If the Legislature passes the initiatives, they could be altered with simple majority votes. If the public approves the measures, future amendments would require the support of three-fourths of both chambers.

A spokeswoman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said Tuesday he was aware of One Fair Wage’s legal position.

“He is confident in the Senate’s ability to amend statute,” Amber McCann said.

Charlie Owens, the state director of the small business organization NFIB, urged legislators to act. He said the three-fourths requirement would be “impossible” to meet, sticking Michigan “with the most stringent paid sick leave and minimum wage employer mandate in the country.”

Lawmakers will have little time to debate the option when they meet Wednesday and Thursday after a summer break. State election officials want to finalize the fall ballot by Friday.

Legislators have enacted citizen initiatives seven times since approval of the state’s 1963 constitution but have never later attempted to substantially scale back one of those. In 1991, they repealed a section of a 1990 law that required parental consent for a minor to have an abortion and in 1992 made another change in response to a judge’s ruling.

Brewer said lawmakers are allowed to change a citizen-initiated statute they have passed but only in the next two-year session, not the current one. He pointed to a 1964 opinion from former state Attorney General Frank Kelley, who said using the strategy in the same legislative session would violate the “spirit and letter” of the constitution.

The opinion is also being cited by House Democrats, while a spokesman for Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard said the majority counsel was looking into legal questions.

“But the first priority is determining whether the issues should be taken up. That conversation has not happened yet,” Gideon D’Assandro said.

Michigan Opportunity, a group formed by the hospitality industry to oppose the minimum wage measure, released its own legal analysis Tuesday saying the constitution imposes no limits on the circumstances under which an initiative adopted by the Legislature can be amended. The memo called Kelley’s opinion incorrect and “gratuitous.”

LaCresha Clark, a part-time restaurant worker from Detroit, said making $3.52 an hour and supplementing it with tips is “very stressful.” The single mother said she has a medical condition that causes seizures. She said she struggles to pay bills and feed her three children.

“Let us vote,” Clark said.

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