Even though it is part of my job to write objectively about public policy developments, sometimes it is difficult. When lawmakers use disingenuous means to block the people of Michigan from having a say on popular initiatives, as they did last week, I get frustrated.
Poll after poll has shown that when a minimum wage increase proposal is put before the voters of Michigan as a ballot initiative, it is expected to win. Yet three times in the past 12 years—including last Wednesday—the Republican-led Michigan Legislature has figured out a way to keep such proposals off the ballot in order to water them down and remove important components:
- In 2006, when Michigan’s minimum wage was equal to the federal minimum wage, which had not been raised in 10 years, polls conducted nationally and in Michigan showed very strong support for a minimum wage increase (a Pew survey showed 83% of Americans in support). There had been a ballot petition underway to amend Michigan’s minimum wage law to increase the minimum wage in three steps during 2006 through 2008, and to increase it for inflation each year after that. Fearing the ballot proposal would pass, Michigan’s Legislature got out in front of it and passed an amendment to the minimum wage law that raised it a dime higher in each step than the ballot initiative would have—but did not include the annual increase thereafter. The organizers of the minimum wage campaign had no choice but to stop gathering signatures, because their proposal would have amounted to a decrease in the minimum wage from what the Legislature put in place. Because Michigan’s minimum wage was raised from $5.15 to $7.40 over three years, Michigan’s lowest-paid workers had a temporary win, but for several years after 2008 the minimum wage remained flat rather than receiving a small increase to keep up with the cost of living.
- In 2014, another promising ballot initiative in Michigan would have increased the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017 in four steps, as well as eliminate the separate lower wage for tipped workers. This time, the Legislature took a different tactic: rather than amending the minimum wage law as they did in 2006, they scrapped the law entirely and passed a new minimum wage law that raised the minimum wage, but to a lower amount than the ballot initiative would have. The new law raised the tipped minimum wage to a lower level than the ballot proposal would have, rather than eliminating it. Because the ballot initiative was worded as amending the current law, the proposal was declared invalid as that law no longer existed. Once again, Michigan workers got a minimum wage increase, but lower than what Michigan residents would have likely voted for and without the tipped wage elimination.
- This past week, the Legislature used yet another tactic to prevent the people of Michigan from voting on a minimum wage increase. Three and a half months after the Michigan One Fair Wage Committee submitted well over the required number of petition signatures to get a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $12 by 2022 and eliminate the separate tipped wage by 2024 on the ballot, opponents in the Legislature passed the same proposal in both chambers, which constitutionally keeps it off the ballot. While that might sound like good news on the surface, Republican leaders indicated that it will enable them to pass changes to the law that would weaken it—eliminating language phasing out the separate tipped wage, for example.
On the same day the Legislature took up the minimum wage bill, both chambers also passed an earned sick leave proposal that had been destined for the ballot this November and enjoyed popular support, apparently with the idea of eliminating or reversing it later. Earned sick leave has long been advocated for by the Michigan League for Public Policy and by Mothering Justice, whose Time to Care Coalition had been putting boots on the ground for months to get it on the ballot. The atmosphere was jubilant as far more than enough signatures were turned in to the Board of Canvassers to get it onto the ballot, but because of the Legislature’s tactics, earned sick leave’s future remains uncertain.
Coming up with clever procedural tactics in order to disregard the wishes of state residents is nothing new; people in influential political positions have been doing it for centuries. But it is very unfortunate that our legislative leadership is focused on undermining our democratic process instead of putting that creative energy into how to adequately fund education and infrastructure, or finding solutions to lead poisoning and other childhood risks, or making college more affordable.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” goes the old cliché that adequately describes what went on with the legislative leadership this past week. In that spirit, let’s put pressure on our lawmakers to better reflect the will of the people they were elected to represent instead of standing in their way.