Advocates of Local Control and Minimum Wage Score a Legal Victory in Missouri

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state couldn't bar St. Louis from establishing its own minimum wage. The ruling could bolster legal arguments in favor of a higher minimum wage in Kansas City if voters approve one in an upcoming election.

By Lynn Horsley

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state couldn't bar St. Louis from establishing its own minimum wage. The ruling could bolster legal arguments in favor of a higher minimum wage in Kansas City if voters approve one in an upcoming election.

In a case concerning a minimum wage approved by St. Louis aldermen, the state high court ruled that St. Louis had charter authority to set a higher minimum wage for the city than that set by the state.

The court majority agreed in the St. Louis case that nothing in a particularly cited state statute prevented local governments from adopting a higher minimum wage.

"The court rejected our opponents' absurd argument that Missouri's minimum wage law is there to protect businesses rather than workers," said Gina Chiala of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom. "The minimum wage is, of course, a floor -- and a very low one, at that -- not a cap to higher wages."

"Despite the liberal Supreme Court's gross misinterpretation of state statute, money still doesn't grow on trees," said Ray McCarty, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Missouri. "Some minimum wage employees will find themselves without jobs thanks to this misguided decision."

Part of the opinion related to St. Louis' passage of a higher wage by Aug. 28, 2015, a situation that doesn't apply in Kansas City.

But the new court decision means St. Louis can raise its minimum wage to $11 by 2018, and some said it could signal Kansas City's ability to raise its minimum wage, as well.

"It's a win for Missouri minimum wage advocates," said Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas, who teaches law at the University of Kansas. "This is a reason to push the minimum wage argument even harder."

State Rep. Fred Wessels, a St. Louis Democrat, was on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen for 29 years and was the city's director of community development when the minimum wage ordinance passed.

"The court's ruling is a victory for local control," he said. "I'm pleased on that standpoint, but I'm also pleased for the workers who will benefit from this ruling. ... I hope local governments all over the state will move forward and raise the minimum wage."

The Kansas City Law Department said Tuesday that the ruling does not directly affect a separate petition initiative in Kansas City that seeks to raise the minimum wage here to $15 by 2022.

But other attorneys said Tuesday that the ruling could be instructive if voters approve a higher minimum wage in Kansas City, and then it faces legal challenges.

The petition initiative by advocates for low-wage workers is headed for Kansas City's Aug. 8 ballot. It seeks to raise the Kansas City minimum to $10 an hour on Sept. 1, and then by $1.25 an hour each year until it reaches $15 an hour in 2022.

Missouri's state-set minimum now is $7.70 an hour.

The higher St. Louis minimum wage was to have gone into effect in 2015, but it was struck down by a circuit court judge after business groups argued that the ordinance conflicted with state law. Opponents also argued that local minimums would create a confusing array of wage floors in the state.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It found that a portion of a 1998 statute that purported to prohibit such local ordinances was unconstitutional because it contained more than one subject.

The other part of the Supreme Court ruling dealt with House Bill 722, a state law adopted in 2015.

Missouri lawmakers had tried to stop local minimum wage increases in 2015 with a provision added onto a bill that prohibited city bans on plastic bags. That bill said the state couldn't pre-empt city ordinances passed before Aug. 28, 2015.

The Supreme Court said St. Louis passed its minimum wage increase before that date and thus wasn't preempted by the state.

While the Kansas City Council adopted a higher minimum wage in the summer of 2015, it repealed that ordinance in October 2015 because it thought it was preempted by HB 722.

Several Kansas City attorneys said Tuesday they think HB 722 is clearly unconstitutional, just as the 1998 statute was, because it had more than one subject -- plastic bags and minimum wage. So they argued that if voters approve the higher minimum wage Aug. 8, they would be on solid legal footing to defend that vote.

"The Missouri Supreme Court did not address HB 722," said Clinton Adams Jr., one of the attorneys representing the Kansas City minimum wage petitioners. "But by applying the same analysis to 1998, it's a clear signal that dealing with two subject matters is unconstitutional. And they go beyond that by talking about the authority that home-rule charter cities have."

Kansas City petitioners also had sought to raise the city's minimum in 2015, but that effort, too, was stopped through court appeals. In the Kansas City case, the state Supreme Court ruled in January that the city must put the proposed ordinance before the city's voters.

The Star's Jason Hancock contributed to this report.

(c)2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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