Minn. Supreme Court blocks $15 minimum wage, police insurance from Minneapolis’ ballot

Published 9:59 am Thursday, September 1, 2016

By Erin Golden and Eric Roper

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Minneapolis voters will not weigh in this November on whether the city should raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour, following a ruling issued Wednesday by the state’s highest court.

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In a unanimous order released a day after it heard the case, the Minnesota Supreme Court sided with the city of Minneapolis, which had argued that a proposal to raise the wage was not a proper subject for an amendment to the city’s charter. The court also ruled in the city’s favor on a separate charter amendment case, in which a police-accountability group sought to let voters decide whether to require police officers to carry professional liability insurance.

The ruling is a blow to advocates for both issues who didn’t feel like they were being heard by the City Council and instead wanted to take their case to voters. The high court’s decision means advocates for these issues are now forced to resume negotiations with council members and the mayor.

“This is about people’s lives in a city with the worst racial disparities in the country,” said Mike Griffin, field director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, a lead group pushing the $15 wage. “If we can’t raise wages through a charter amendment, we’ll raise them through an ordinance.”

The court has not yet issued its full opinions on the two cases, opting to release shorter orders reversing a lower-court decision in the minimum-wage case and upholding an earlier ruling in the insurance matter. The justices were up against a tight timeline; with the deadline to print absentee ballots approaching, Hennepin County elections officials had said they needed a decision by the end of the week.

But the court did provide a window into its thinking, writing that the city’s charter does not grant citizens the right to vote on policy decisions, instead vesting that power in the hands of the City Council. In the police insurance case, the court said the proposal conflicts with state law over cities’ requirements to back employees in legal matters.

Debates around both issues — and the proper process for taking them to City Hall — had been ongoing for months and often turned emotional. Supporters said the changes were necessary to help erase racial and economic disparities and transform policing. Critics — particularly of the minimum wage plan — worried about broader impacts on the city’s economy, while others feared putting the issues on the ballot would open the doors to policymaking by referendum in cities across Minnesota.

Hours before the rulings, activists with 15 Now Minnesota, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change turned up at City Hall to demand that council members vote to drop the appeal on the minimum-wage issue. After that effort failed — and the Supreme Court ruled in the city’s favor — 15 Now’s executive director, Ginger Jentzen, said her group was disappointed but resolute. She said months of activism had pushed council members, for the first time, to support a higher wage.

“I think these low-wage workers are really changing the landscape of the city,” she said. “Clearly, pushing on the City Council for $15 as an ordinance is the path we want to go down now.”

Anticipating a possible loss at the court, activists said earlier in the day they would push to have a $15 minimum wage enacted by Election Day — whether on the ballot or through a City Council ordinance.

That would be a faster timeline than the council supported earlier in August, when it requested staff recommendations on the issue by the second quarter of 2017.

“I think that’s realistically the very fastest a meaningful minimum wage policy can be passed,” said Council Member Lisa Bender, a co-author of that resolution.

City Attorney Susan Segal said that the victory for the city was about a legal question — rather than a determination on the merits of a particular issue.

“This has never been about whether there should be a higher minimum wage,” she said. “This has always been about the proper process and venue for doing that.”

Other legal hurdles might await, however, should the council decide to pass a citywide minimum wage higher than the one set by the state or federal government.

Graco Inc., a manufacturer of pumps and spray equipment, filed paperwork on Friday challenging the proposed $15-an-hour ballot initiative on the grounds that it conflicted with the state’s minimum wage law — a different legal argument than the one made by the city.

“A municipal minimum wage would conflict with state law, whether that municipal minimum wage is enacted as part of a city charter amendment or as an ordinance,” Christopher Larus, an attorney for Graco, said before Wednesday’s ruling.

Graco’s filing is no longer relevant after the court’s decision, but it foreshadows what could be a looming battle.