Democrats’ strategy on minimum wage and sick time initiatives backfires

By: - December 6, 2018 4:43 pm

Larry Lipton, Laurie Lisi, Vickie Leland and Bruce Coppola of Indivisible 9th District protesting at the Capitol, Dec. 4, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Michigan Democrats who voted in September to OK minimum wage and sick leave ballot initiatives were counting on Republicans honoring the long-standing precedent not to fiddle with measures after passage.

But Dems saw their hopes dashed on Tuesday when Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, ran through watered-down legislation to raise the minimum wage and offer more paid sick time.

Democrats argue the action was unconstitutional based on a 1964 opinion from Democratic former Attorney General Frank Kelley, who said the Legislature couldn’t adopt and amend a citizen-backed initiative in the same session. Indeed, the Legislature has never done so.

However, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, who last month lost his gubernatorial bid, this week offered an opinion that the GOP was in the clear, contradicting Kelley.

While Democrats largely placed the blame for the gutted initiatives at the feet of the GOP, almost half of the House Dem caucus voted to adopt the ballot proposals this fall rather than place them on the Nov. 6 ballot.

On Sept. 5, both measures passed the Senate by votes of 24-13, with all 10 Democrats opposing the measure. The House, meanwhile, voted 78-28 on both measures, with 21 Dems in favor, 22 opposing and three abstaining from the vote.

Abdullah Hammoud

One of those voting “yes” was Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn), although he told the Advance on Wednesday afternoon that he would have preferred to have seen the proposals go to the ballot.

“Unfortunately, we’re in the minority and that was a move by the majority [party],” he said, adding that he believes raising the minimum wage and providing earned sick benefits constitute Democratic Party values.

But one Democratic former lawmaker expressed frustration with some in her party who voted for the proposals.

The Advance asked Gilda Jacobs, now president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP), whether she believes Democratic lawmakers made a misstep in September.

“I’m not sure what they were thinking about, to be honest with you,” she said in a phone interview. Jacobs added that she believes Democrats wanted to adopt the measures as a means of having input in the legislative process.

Jacobs, who served 12 years total in the state House and Senate, said she understands why the GOP wished to keep the proposals off the ballot.

“Both of these bills so clearly had enormous public support,” Jacobs said. “The polling on them was huge. And that’s why the majority party took them off and put them into their bailiwick. They knew they were going to pass.”

Both proposals underwent major surgery in the Legislature after the election.

For the minimum wage, the citizen-initiated proposal increased it from $9.25 to $12 per hour by 2022. The legislation on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk raises it to $12.05 by 2030. Tipped workers would go from a $3.52 per hour minimum wage to $12 by 2024, under the citizen proposal. The Legislature changed it to $4.58 by 2030.

For paid sick leave, workers could earn 72 hours of paid time per year under the citizen-initiated plan. The GOP legislation decreases that to 40 hours, exempting businesses employing 50 or fewer people. The original initiative was for employers with six or more workers.

Overly optimistic?

The ballot proposals — known as MI Time to Care and Michigan One Fair Wage — garnered more than 370,000 signatures apiece in support of the measures, exceeding the 252,523 signatures required to make the ballot.

Some Democrats argued in September that citizens should have the right to vote on the measures.

Jeremy Moss

“I refuse to subvert the will of the people by not allowing them to vote on their own ballot initiative,” Rep. Jeremy Moss, (D-Southfield) said in explaining his “no” vote in September. “Nearly 400,000 voters wanted to see [these measures] on their November ballot, and be protected by a three-fourths’ majority vote from future legislative manipulation.”

Moss was referring to the fact that proposals approved by voters cannot be amended or repealed by the Legislature with a simple majority vote. It takes a three-quarters vote in both chambers, according to Michigan law — a very high threshold.

Back in September, however, some Democrats felt safer adopting the measures because they believed the GOP would adhere to the Kelley AG opinion.

Sam Singh

House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing), who voted “yes” on both proposals in September, told the Detroit Free Press at the time that his goal was to “make sure that Republicans commit to not gutting this in Lame Duck. If they can’t do that, we’re going to ask voters to kick them out of office.”

Samantha Hart, Michigan House Democratic spokeswoman, made it clear on Wednesday afternoon that Democrats will campaign in the 2020 election on the GOP’s maneuvers to drastically amend the proposals.

“The Republicans hope is that they do this in the darkness of Lame Duck [when] they’re far enough away from the next election that it won’t have consequences,” Hart said. “I think that calculation is inaccurate and I think they’ll see that in 2020.”

Other progressives working on behalf of the minimum wage and paid sick time initiatives offered confidence in September that Republicans wouldn’t go back and meddle with the measures after passage.

Pete Vargas, spokesman for the minimum wage initiative, was quoted in Bridge in September as saying, “We can declare victory now because there is no legal way to amend the legislation this year.”

Vargas did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

In a phone interview with the Advance on Wednesday, Mark Brewer, an attorney for the ballot initiative groups, said “there are a number of options” and that a “lawsuit remains one option my clients are considering.”

It’s still unclear whether Snyder will sign the bills.

“The governor and legislators have been discussing the proposals,” Snyder spokesman Ari Adler wrote in an email to the Advance. “Whether or not he signs the bills remains to be seen based on his review of the final legislation.”

Danielle Atkinson

MI Time to Care isn’t waiting for the governor’s decision. The group this week already submitted ballot proposal petition language with the Secretary of State, saying it will make a push for 2020 if Snyder signs the GOP changes.

“If we have to collect petitions, we will. And we will have our petition in one hand, and a sheet with the names of every lawmaker who voted to gut the law in the other hand,” campaign coalition Co-Chair Danielle Atkinson said in a statement.

Business groups pleased

Legislation gutting the minimum and paid sick time proposals is largely seen as a win for the state’s business community. Many groups viewed the original proposals as overly burdensome, making Michigan uncompetitive with neighboring states.

Wendy Block

“We applaud the Legislature for taking action on the Earned Sick Time Act,” Wendy Block of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce said in a statement. “The changes reflected in the bill preserve paid medical leave while ensuring Michigan companies can compete on a level playing field with other states.”

Jacobs, the former Democratic legislator and head of the MLPP, however, couldn’t disagree more.

When asked whether business groups’ concerns about the original proposals held merit, Jacobs said, “I think that’s ‘the sky is falling’ kind of argument that the business community often uses when they feel they’re kind of losing control of the system here, which they’re not.

“The business community has done pretty well for the last eight years [under GOP control] and I think it’s really time to pay attention to the people that are our taxpayers and can be even bigger taxpayers,” she added.

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.