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New Alabama Law Blocks Cities From Setting Their Own Minimum Wage

The legislative battle over Birmingham's minimum wage ended Thursday.

By Brian Lyman

The legislative battle over Birmingham's minimum wage ended Thursday.

The Alabama Senate gave final approval to a bill to block the Magic City from setting a $10.10 an hour wage floor, capping two weeks of intense debate over wages in Alabama and the proper relationship of state and local government.

Gov. Robert Bentley signed the bill Thursday afternoon, less than an hour after the final vote. ABC 33/40 in Birmingham reported that the city's legal department said the vote "voided" Birmingham's ordinance. In a statement, Birmingham City Council president Johnathan Austin said "the fight has just begun."

"The very people who have refused to expand Medicaid in the state to help the most vulnerable amongst us receive critical medical care, are once again keeping their boots on the necks of people in desperate need of financial relief," the statement said. "People can not pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they can't afford to buy boots."

The Senate approved the measure by a 23-11 vote, mainly on party lines. Eight Democrats voted against the measure, as did Republican Sens. Paul Bussman of Cullman and Bill Holtzclaw of Madison. Independent Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb also voted against the measure.

Nearly every remaining Republican in the chamber voted for the measure. Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, was listed as not voting.

In the Montgomery delegation, Senate Minority Leader Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, voted against the bill and Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery voted for it.

The legislation prevents cities and municipalities from setting their own minimum wages, and also imposes limits on the wages and benefits they can negotiate with employers looking to locate in their areas.

Democrats sharply criticized the legislation as interference in city affairs and an attempt to end discussion about proper compensation in Alabama.

"(Republicans) pick and choose," Ross said. "You don't want banks regulated. Big business doesn't want to be regulated, but you want to regulate the discussion of a fair, workable wage."

Republican supporters, in turn, said they wanted to prevent costs from rising on businesses, which they said could lead to job losses.

Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, who carried the bill in the Senate, said the wage could lead to "worrisome job trends" in Birmingham.

"What a hodgepodge we would have in this state if Birmingham passed a minimum wage and Montgomery passed one," he said.

Sen. Bill Hightower, R-Mobile, said that a higher minimum would pull older workers into the market.

"What happens when we raise minimum wage is we crowd people out of the job market," he said.

Birmingham and the Alabama Legislature tried to match each other stride-for-stride after the city voted last August to establish its own minimum wage, to be phased in over two years. Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, first filed the bill in last September's special session, but it failed to advance to a vote.

The Birmingham City Council began moving to speed up implementation of the minimum wage earlier this month when it appeared Faulkner would bring his legislation back. After the Alabama House approved Faulkner's measure last week, the City Council voted to implement the measure. The ordinance was scheduled to go into effect Sunday.

City council members argue the minimum wage is a way to improve quality of life. Birmingham senators echoed that.

"We're talking about the bare survival of people," said Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham. "And we're talking about a Legislature . . . that says we don't care about y'all."

Coleman-Madison said the working poor needed to keep up with rising costs of living.

"It even costs more to die," she said. "Everything has gone up. Yet we don't feel the working poor deserve a break."

Brewbaker said he was concerned about the bill generally, but that Birmingham's efforts to implement it in a single step made it worse.

"Montgomery would probably follow suit," he said. "I think it would have a negative effect on business and employment."

Updated: An earlier version of this story, reflecting the vote record, said Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, was listed as not voting. Coleman-Madison said her no vote was not heard in the initial tally. The vote record and the story have been updated.

(c)2016 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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