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Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature on Wednesday approved citizen-initiated legislation raising the state’s minimum wage to $12 per hour and requiring paid sick leave, a move designed to make the proposals easier to change.

Many Democrats, who generally support the policies, opposed the effort to keep the initiatives off the Nov. 6 ballot. They warned the GOP majority could “gut” the proposals later this year in the so-called lame-duck session, while no Republicans spoke in favor of the initiatives during the legislative debates.

The Michigan Constitution gives lawmakers 40 days to act on initiated legislation or allow it to go to the ballot. But amending citizen-initiated legislation in the same two-year term would be unprecedented under the 1963 state Constitution, and some legal experts contend it would violate the state Constitution. 

Amending a citizen-initiated proposal in the same session would violate “the spirit and letter” of the initiative process, then-Attorney General Frank Kelley, a Democrat, wrote in a 1964 opinion that has not been tested in the courts.

Mark Brewer, an attorney for the One Fair Wage ballot committee and former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, on Tuesday vowed to sue if Republicans adopt the proposal only to weaken it later this year.

Robert Sedler, a law professor at Wayne State University, agreed with Brewer that amending the proposal later this year would "clearly defy” the state Constitution.

“I don’t think it would survive a legal challenge," Sedler said, raising the potential the effort could backfire on Republicans if the adoption stands but eventual amendments are blocked.

Attorneys for Michigan Opportunity, a business coalition fighting the minimum wage proposal, argued this week in a legal memo the Constitution allows lawmakers to immediately amend any initiative they approve. "The gratuitous statement" in Kelley's 1964 opinion is "clearly incorrect," they argued. 

Business groups have raised concerns about how their costs would be excessively raised by the minimum wage and paid sick leave proposals, which were sent to the Legislature by liberal groups who collected more than 252,523 signatures required to advance the measures.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said Senate GOP attorneys have reviewed the matter and he is confident that “there is no prohibition on us enacting and amending” the proposals this year.

In 2013, GOP leaders negotiated with Democratic leaders to boost Michigan's then-$7.40-an-hour minimum wage to $9.25 by 2018. A bipartisan legislative majority voted to repeal the state's 1964 minimum wage statute to keep a Raise Michigan initiative for a $10.10 minimum wage off the ballot.

'Attack on democracy'

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said it was tough to vote against proposals that could benefit workers. But Hertel called Republican plans to later amend the initiatives “a classic bait and switch, a trick on the voters of Michigan, an attack on democracy.”

During the House debate, Democratic state Rep. Leslie Love of Detroit argued that such a move to keep the initiatives off the ballot amounted to "voter suppression."

There is no plan in place for changes to the initiatives, but he wouldn’t rule out future conversations regarding the initiatives’ amendment, House Speaker Tom Leonard said after the vote.

“I personally wanted to make certain that the Legislature was still going to have a say,” the DeWitt Republican said. “Both of these citizens-initiated laws were poorly written.”

Meekhof, R-West Olive, declined to discuss any planned amendments to the proposals, which will not immediately take effect, saying “there are many ideas out there.”

“We’ll consider different options and a whole suite of things we think are more friendly to Michigan, to make sure that workers are indeed cared for, and that still provide for economic development moving forward,” Meekhof told reporters after the votes.

Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township, one of three Republicans to vote against the initiatives in the upper chamber, described approval as a "procedural gimmick” to avoid a three-quarters vote requirement to amend the proposals if they instead were approved by voters on Nov. 6.

“That’s not how we should be doing things," said Colbeck, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in the GOP primary. "We should be debating the merits.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat who has sponsored paid sick leave legislation, argued the Republican adopt-and-amend strategy should really be called “approve and remove, or even more cynically on my part, undo and screw.”

The GOP majority has not told Democrats — or voters — how they intend to change the legislation, Ananich said.

“There’s no question they plan on making dramatic changes, if not repealing it altogether," he said. "We have no idea what that’s going to be.”

More than 20 House Democrats supported adopting the initiatives, including House Democratic Leader Sam Singh. Democrats were able to “shame” Republicans through the ballot initiative process to adopt the traditionally Democratic proposals, he said.  

“What we’ll do between now and the election is make sure that they commit to not gutting this in lame duck,” the East Lansing Democrat said. “If they can’t commit to it, then it’s very clear for the voters that the only people who will protect the things that we got today are Democrats.”

The Senate adopted both measures in 24-13 votes, with opposition from all 10 Democrats and Republican Sens. Colbeck, Joe Hune of Hamburg Township and Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton.

The House later approved the measures in 78-28 votes as 21 House Democrats joined most Republicans in support. Fifty-seven Republicans voted in favor with six GOP lawmakers rejecting the measure, including Reps. Jeff Yaroch of Richmond, Jim Tedder of Clarkston and John Reilly of Oakland Township.

Businesses welcome move

A coalition of Michigan job providers called Small Business for a Better Michigan welcomed the legislative action.

“As with all other laws pertaining to business, it is important to keep policy making within the hands of the policy makers, said Mike Johnston with the Michigan Manufacturers Association, one of the coalition members.

"If there are provisions in these proposals that would harm or reverse Michigan’s economic comeback, we need to be able to address them at the legislative level.”

The two committees that worked to get the initiatives on the ballot celebrated the legislative adoption Wednesday, but warned against making changes to the proposals. The groups vowed to defend the initiatives if legislators make attempts at amendments. 

“We are well aware of legislative leaders’ intent in adopting this measure,"  Michigan One Fair Wage campaign manager Pete Vargas said in a statement. "They hope to suppress voter turnout among workers, people of color and immigrants by keeping the measure off the ballot, and then gut the legislation during the lame duck session." 

Changing legislatively adopted legislation requires a simple majority in the House and Senate, which Republicans currently enjoy heading into a midterm election that Democrats hope will tip the balance of power.

Meekhof said the primary concern with the minimum wage proposal is that it would eliminate the state’s two-tiered system allowing restaurants to pay tipped staff an hourly wage of $3.52. The proposal would raise the state’s $9.25 minimum wage to $12 by 2022 for most workers and by 2024 for restaurant servers. 

“Folks that work at restaurants make a lot of money, many of them, and there’s no incentive for them to do better if they are limited to whatever the dollar is on there,” Meekhof told reporters. “And it’s an added cost to restaurants that they have to either charge in the food or do something different.”

After the Senate vote, a large group of servers wearing restaurant T-shirts and Restaurant Workers Association pins poured on to the Capitol steps and chanted "Save our tips.” 

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 restaurant lobby and some restaurant workers who fear it may discourage tipping in the future. 

Ieisha Stevens said she makes more through tips at the IHOP/Applebees in Detroit than she would through the proposed $12-an-hour minimum wage.

“I hope and I pray that they let us save our tips,” Stevens said.

For Anthony Poziemski, a $12 minimum wage does not provide the same incentive as a tip for good service. Tips are a motivation for good work and a way to establish a relationship with customers, said Poziemski, a server at Applebees in Chesterfield.

“I treat every customer like my family,” he said.

The paid sick leave proposal would require businesses to provide the benefit to employees, but Meekhof said he thinks “the employee and employer should work that out,” suggesting the potential for a major change to the legislation. “The government shouldn’t even be between them.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662
 

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