Michigan Republicans weigh fate of minimum wage hike, paid sick leave proposals

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature is considering whether to adopt and later amend minimum wage and paid sick leave proposals rather than allowing them to proceed to the November ballot.

Senate and House Republicans will discuss potential action on both measures when they return to session next week — likely the last opportunity before Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office finalizes ballots for printing.

While conservatives usually oppose the $12-an-hour minimum wage and paid sick leave proposals, adopting them would give lawmakers greater flexibility to eventually amend measures that could otherwise drive Democratic voter turnout in the fall.

“We certainly understand why the Legislature might be considering it, especially as it relates to the paid sick leave proposal — it gets really tricky, really fast for employers," said Wendy Block, a lobbyist for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “I think the goal there is for the Legislature to really make it workable.”

Democrats are open to "real negotiations" involving the ballot committee backers but are wary of any GOP plan to "gut" the proposals late this year during the so-called lame-duck session, said House Minority Leader Sam Singh of East Lansing.

Michigan’s constitution gives lawmakers 40 days to consider legislation initiated by petition drive or allow it to go to the statewide ballot. Liberal groups collected more than 280,000 valid signatures for the minimum wage proposal and more than 270,000 signatures for the proposal that would require employers to provide workers with paid sick leave.

House Republicans are planning an off-site caucus meeting to discuss the proposals, likely on Tuesday. Senate Republicans are also expected to caucus next week ahead of sessions on Wednesday and Thursday.

"While there is no specific plan for action on either proposal, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s “position on citizens initiatives, in general, is that adoption is preferred because it permits amendment by simple majority at any point in the future,” said spokeswoman Amber McCann.

Any law directly approved by voters can only be amended by a three-fourths majority in both chambers.

Meekhof this summer pushed a plan to adopt and amend a marijuana legalization proposal. But the West Olive Republican was unable to get sign off in the House, where too many GOP members were reluctant to vote for a policy they personally oppose in a year when they are up for re-election.

House Speaker Tom Leonard, a DeWitt Republican who is running for state attorney general, voted against minimum wage increases in the past but has not yet reviewed either potential ballot proposal, said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

“The same way we’ve handled all initiatives and ballot issues, the speaker wants to have a conversation with (Republican) members to see if they want to take it up and if there’s support before making a final decision,” D'Assandro said. “That conversation has not happened yet.”

Negotiate with Democrats?

Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature but could need support from some Democrats if more than a handful of conservative House members oppose the adopt-and-amend strategy.

Singh said he would only be willing to play ball with Republicans if they agree to negotiations with Democrats and leaders from both the minimum wage and sick leave ballot committees. But that hasn’t happened yet.

“My sense is that Republicans have seen their own poll numbers and are very afraid of the election in November,” Singh said. “It’s been very clear that, as of right now, this is just a strategy to get these things off the ballot and gut them later in the year.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, introduced a resolution in June seeking to prohibit the Legislature from adopting or repealing initiated laws in the same two-year session when they are adopted. The legislation has not advanced.

Ananich, who also introduced paid sick leave legislation earlier this session, said he “wholeheartedly” supports both ballot initiatives, “and folks should have the right to make their opinions known at the ballot box on Nov. 6.”

The One Fair Wage proposal would raise Michigan’s $9.25-an-hour minimum wage to $10 in 2019, $10.65 in 2020, $11.35 in 2021 and $12 in 2022. Any future increases after 2022 would be tied to inflation.

The proposal would also phase out the lower $3.52 minimum wage for restaurant servers and other tipped employees, bringing it up to $12 by 2024.  That provision has sparked aggressive opposition from the Michigan Restaurant Association, whose chief executive is heading a group asking the state Supreme Court to keep the measure off the ballot. The group asked for a ruling by Friday.

The MI Time to Care proposal would require Michigan businesses to provide workers with paid sick leave they could use in case of physical or mental illness, injury or health conditions affecting themselves or a family member. Time off also could be used by victims of domestic violence and parents attending school meetings.

The Michigan Chamber opposes the paid sick leave initiative because it would restrict the ability of employers to manage their own programs, Block said. It includes what she called an “unprecedented” rebutable presumption clause that could create a legal landmine for employers who later decide to fire or sanction workers for unrelated issues.

Danielle Atkinson, co-chair of the paid sick leave campaign, said her group is confident voters will approve the proposal as written, if given a chance, and any conversation about adopting and amending the initiative should begin with that understanding.

“With the chatter we’re hearing, we really don’t know what they’re going to do,” Atkinson said of the Legislature, “but we are going to make it a top priority to make sure the law is implemented fairly and people won’t have to make a choice between the jobs they need and the families they love.”

Firms: Wage hikes unsustainable

Michigan raised its minimum wage each of the last three years under a law the Republican-led Legislature approved in 2014 as part of a deal with Democrats to avoid a potential ballot proposal. Business groups argue constant increases are not sustainable.

“For some, it really does mean closing their doors,” Block said. “For others, it means they’re going to continue to take a good hard look at automation. For restaurants relying on tips, it probably makes a lot of sense to put an iPad on the table and to have a runner deliver that food.”

Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he personally supports the adopt-and-amend strategy, particularly on the paid sick leave proposal, which he said would send a “very negative sign to businesses considering investing capital in Michigan.”

Shirkey, who is expected to become majority leader next year if Republicans retain control of the upper chamber, said he is not sure whether Republicans will find enough votes to adopt the proposals next week.

“If it were left up to the Senate, I think there would be a pretty good chance,” he said. “I have not yet had a chance to talk to my colleagues in the House, but it probably needs to start there just to see if we have the momentum to carry it through the Legislature.”

One Fair Michigan has encouraged legislators top adopt — but not amend — the $12 minimum wage proposal.

“The wage hike would add Michigan to a growing list of states that recognize and support the need for workers to be able to support their households,” the group said last week in a statement.


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Twitter: @jonathanoosting