By Joey Flechas
Miami Beach's new minimum wage law, which aims to raise the mandatory citywide wage to $13.31 by 2021, was struck down in Miami-Dade circuit court Tuesday, setting the stage for an escalation in the legal showdown between Tallahassee and City Hall.
The Florida Retail Federation, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and Florida Chamber of Commerce filed suit against the city in December over the city law, arguing that it is preempted by state law. Later, state Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a motion to intervene to defend the constitutionality of the state preemption law.
On Tuesday, Judge Peter Lopez invalidated the ordinance, ruling in favor of the alliance of the state and the statewide business groups, which insisted the requirement would be devastating for local businesses.
R. Scott Shalley, president and CEO of the retail federation, called the decision "great news for Florida retailers and the entire business community, as this ruling does not place an additional mandate on local businesses by requiring Miami Beach business owners to provide wages above what the state has previously established in law."
Miami Beach's attorneys said they will appeal immediately.
Florida's minimum wage went up from $8.05 to $8.10 an hour on Jan 1. Lauded by labor unions and derided by business interests, the Beach's ordinance mandates the new citywide minimum to be set at $10.31 on Jan. 1, 2018, and then increase by a dollar a year until 2021. The effective date of 2018 was purposeful -- attorneys anticipated a legal challenge and wanted to give the city time to sort it out.
The City Commission also knew of the expected challenge when it unanimously passed the ordinance in June 2016. The Beach's legal team has argued that a 2004 constitutional amendment that set a state minimum wage higher than the federal wage allows municipalities to set their own minimums.
Last week, a few groups filed legal briefs in support of the city's position, including a leading expert on Florida constitutional law. Sandy D'Alemberte, dean emeritus of the Florida State University College of Law, filed a brief stating that the 2004 amendment protects local governments' authority to set their minimum wage, whether it's higher or lower than the statewide rate.
On Tuesday, Robert Rosenwald, first assistant city attorney, said in a statement that the court "simply got it wrong."
"It ignored controlling Florida Supreme Court precedent holding that when a prior statute conflicts with the will of the people expressed in a constitutional amendment, it is the people's judgment that controls," he said.
Rosenwald drafted the ordinance and has insisted all along that the city will prevail in the end. He said the city wants to skip the appellate court and go straight to Tallahassee with the case.
"We will immediately appeal this adverse decision," he said. "We will request that the Florida Supreme Court bypass the intermediate appellate court and step in immediately to reverse the trial court's misreading of its precedent. Ultimately, whichever court hears our appeal first, we expect the attorney general and the special interest group plaintiffs to continue to fight, and so will we."
The Beach ordinance received a good deal of support from labor groups, including unions and the National Employment Law Project.
"The court's ruling invalidating Miami Beach's minimum wage ordinance -- and upholding the legislature's ban on cities' addressing local needs for higher wages -- is unfortunate and will hurt communities across the state," said Christine Owens, who works for the advocacy group. " It also flies in the face of the opinion of leading constitutional experts, who filed a legal brief agreeing that the legislature's ban was illegal."
Miami has the greatest gap among big U.S. cities between rich and poor, according to an October 2016 report by Bloomberg.
The invalidation marks a defeat for legislation first championed by Mayor Philip Levine, a politically ambitious Democrat who has made the minimum wage a central talking point as he explores a run for governor.
For Levine, the Beach, and the whole state, the ordinance and its ramifications lie at the intersection of policy and politics.
Levine stridently pushed for the the law's passage while firmly positioning himself as a prominent Democratic voice opposing Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who will leave office due to term limits in 2018. A millionaire entrepreneur, Levine took aim at Scott and Bondi when the state intervened in the suit. Before that, the mayor even took out radio ads in California last year to promote the Beach's ordinance while Scott was there on a business recruiting trip.
In a statement Tuesday, Levine criticized the state for wanting to block the Beach's law.
"While I am extremely disappointed in today's ruling against Florida families, we expected that this case would ultimately end up before the Florida Supreme Court," he said. "Our legal team is working on a swift appeal to ensure that the will of Floridians expressed through the 2004 state constitutional amendment on minimum wage is fully implemented."
Levine plans to respond to the political defeat by upping the ante. He wants to take the issue to the voters in the form of a statewide referendum.
"I am committed to seeing this issue through and will take it to the people through a referendum because we know Florida families cannot survive on today's minimum wage," he told the Miami Herald.
The statewide petition approach might be taken in Kansas City, Missouri, where the mayor and council members want to enact a local minimum wage higher than the state rate, but state lawmakers are already moving to block such efforts by passing a preemption law.
"We thank our coalition partners for their commitment to protecting businesses, and we look forward to doing our part to protect our members and ensure that Florida remains a great location to start and grow a business." Florida Retail Federation President and CEO R. Scott Shalley
Politics aside, the ordinance comes at a time when the income gap between Miami-Dade's richest and poorest is growing. Researchers suggest that high housing costs and stagnant wages are driving Americans out of South Florida -- a theory bolstered by recent Census data and several studies in recent years.
A 2016 study by the Brookings Institution found that South Florida is among the worst in terms of income inequality in the country in urban areas and cities. A report by the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University noted that poverty levels in Miami-Dade have at remained at recession-level highs, and despite upticks in jobs, the workforce is returning to low-paying jobs instead of middle-income-paying work.
Advocates for the higher minimum wage point to these factors and apply them to the Beach, which has a tourism-driven economy geared to high-end spenders and serviced by relatively low-wage workers.
(c)2017 Miami Herald