By Lynn Horsley
The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered Kansas City to put a proposal on the ballot that could eventually boost the city's minimum wage to $15 a hour.
The high court reversed a trial judge's ruling that said a state law prohibited the city from adopting a minimum wage different from the state's base wage, which is $7.70 as of Jan. 1. The higher local pay is being proposed by a grass-roots committee's petition initiative, which seeks gradual increases to $15 per hour by 2020.
"The city is ordered to take all steps necessary to have the committee's proposed ordinance placed before city voters in accordance with the city charter," the Supreme Court said.
The city attorney's office and Kansas City Council had thought the state law prohibited them from seeking local voter approval for a higher wage. But the Supreme Court said Tuesday that as long as the petitioners followed the proper procedure under the city charter, their measure should still go on the ballot.
The court didn't, however, settle the conflict between the petition initiative and the state law. It said that if Kansas City voters approve the higher wage, future legal challenges could decide that issue.
The city attorney's office said it was reviewing the court's decision and would advise the council on possible next steps.
Other observers said Tuesday's ruling is important for two reasons: Besides adding a new wrinkle to the local minimum wage debate, it could also open the floodgates to more petition initiatives on Kansas City election ballots.
Here's the background:
A grass-roots group led by the Urban Summit, inner-city pastors and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City gathered sufficient signatures in 2015 to seek a public vote to raise Kansas City's local minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020. But Jackson County Circuit Judge Justine Del Muro ruled in September 2015 that the petition should not go on the November 2015 ballot.
She said a new state law clearly prohibited Kansas City from adopting a higher minimum wage than the state-set minimum, which at the time of her ruling was $7.65 a hour.
The grass-roots group argued in an appeal that there were problems with the way the General Assembly drafted its Missouri law and with a previous state law that also limited local control over the setting of the minimum wage.
The state's high court on Tuesday reversed Del Muro's decision. The high court said the "proper course is to wait and see if this proposal is enacted (by voters) before considering challenges to an ordinance's substance or effect.
"If the voters approve the proposal, a party with proper standing can then sue to enjoin its operation on the ground that the ordinance is invalid," the ruling said.
That leaves open the door that, even if local voters approved the higher wage, it could be overturned at a later point.
Proponents of the petition drive for the higher minimum wage cheered Tuesday's ruling and said they hope to get their plan on the April ballot. The deadline to approve ballot language for the April election is this week.
Vernon Howard Jr., spokesman for the committee of petitioners, said it would be especially appropriate to put the measure on the April 4 ballot, the exact anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
"Without a doubt, that is the most fitting time to vote for a just ordinance for the poor people of Kansas City who work for a living," Howard said.
He also said he thought it would succeed with local voters, and he wasn't worried about a compacted campaign schedule.
"I believe that the groundswell in Kansas City is already so energized and mobilized and passionate about this that that will not be an obstacle," he said.
If the council doesn't act in time for the April ballot, it could go on the August ballot.
The lawyer who argued the case for the petitioners before the Supreme Court on Oct. 6 said he was thrilled with the order to hold the election.
"This was a very important decision for those people who are looking to get an increase in the minimum wage," said Kansas City attorney Taylor Fields.
Terrence Wise, a McDonald's employee and a leader in the Kansas City Fight for $15 movement, said the Supreme Court decision was a victory "for everyone, everywhere, who believes in the power of democracy."
Wise said the decision means that voters, not politicians in Jefferson City, will be able to vote on a wage increase.
"Across the country, there's a growing understanding among politicians, companies and voters that $15 an hour is the minimum workers need to support our families," Wise said.
Fields conceded that a Kansas City vote to raise the minimum wage, if successful, would likely face a fierce challenge from groups such as the Missouri Restaurant Association.
Fields said he can mount valid and convincing arguments that the state law prohibiting Kansas City from adopting its own minimum wage is unconstitutional. Others disagree.
A lawyer who works with the Missouri Restaurant Association said that a St. Louis minimum wage case -- which was also argued to the Supreme Court on Oct. 6 -- deals with the substantive issue about the state's ability to prohibit local governments from adopting a higher minimum wage.
Lawyer Jane Dueker, who represented a coalition of business groups including the restaurant association in the St. Louis case, said her clients still argue a local higher minimum wage is illegal. And the Kansas City ruling doesn't change that.
"From our perspective, this (Kansas City) ruling has no bearing on whether local governmental bodies have the authority to enact a local minimum wage," Dueker said. "They were taking no position on the validity of that. This has more to do with the petition initiative process."
Dueker said the St. Louis case could be more significant on the minimum wage question, and the Supreme Court has yet to rule. Its next hand-down date for an opinion is Jan. 31.
Dueker did say she thought Tuesday's ruling will make it much harder for Kansas City and the city attorney's office to keep citizens petition initiatives off the ballot.
"They're not entertaining pre-election challenges," she said of the Supreme Court's stance. "That's why this case is really important for petition initiatives."
Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas, a lawyer who teaches constitutional law, agreed. He said Tuesday's ruling could open the door to many more petition initiatives, because the city charter has such a low threshold number of required signatures.
"It's a big deal," he said.
Diane Stafford contributed to this report.
(c)2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)