War of the wages

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In a surprise vote last Thursday, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed a bill that would increase the state's minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.95 come October, giving raises to about 464,000 people. The state House of Representatives is expected to pass the bill any day now, if it hasn't already by the time you read this, and send it to the governor for signing. Since the last time the state and federal minimum wages rose was in 1997, this unexpected burst of legislative energy has raised some eyebrows. In fact, when the current bill was introduced by state Sen. Ray Basham (D-Taylor) in March 2005, the Republican Senate majority treated it like so much hazardous waste. So what's the reason behind their sudden rush to resuscitate it? News Hits offers several.

The first: The measure creates a minimum wage law that could be more easily undone than the stronger constitutional amendment being proposed. Michigan is one of eight states with petitions circulating advocating that minimum wage measures be put in their state constitutions. Democrats, labor unions and progressive activist groups are hoping to place a measure on the November ballot that, if approved by voters, would amend the state constitution to increase Michigan's minimum wage to $6.85 in January 2007 and thereafter tie it to the cost of living index. The Senate bill has no such indexing provision — after a final increase to $7.40 in July 2008, it will stay there until legislators decide otherwise.

State Sen. Bob Emerson (D-Flint) says he's convinced that's the underlying reason behind his Republican colleagues' newfound interest in the minimum wage.

"Obviously, the Republicans and the business community are concerned about the measure going in the constitution," he told News Hits. "They recognize signatures are coming in faster than they assumed they would." And since it's easier to repeal a law than change the constitution, he says, they prefer any minimum wage increase to be enacted by the Legislature.

A second reason could be to stall the momentum made by progressive activists, who have learned to stop worrying and love the referendum. This can be gleaned from the spin of Matt Resch, spokesman for state House Speaker Craig DeRoche (R-Novi). "This puts better policy on the books than anything the people with money to collect signatures could suggest," says Resch. When we suggested this might sound hypocritical coming from a member of the party that supported a petition drive that resulted in a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, he disagreed. "It's apples and oranges," he says.


Another hypothesis: By increasing the minimum wage now, Republicans can defuse turnout among the working poor who, once prompted to hit the polls come November, would be likely to cast ballots in favor of Dems. Think of it as the left's version of anti-gay measures the GOP used to turn out the conservative vote in 2004.

Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, dismissed that thought almost before we uttered it. "Trying to predict how people supportive of the minimum wage increase would vote [on other issues] is futile," he says. Given the broad appeal a minimum wage increase has — an EPIC/MRA poll released Thursday said 74 percent of Michigan residents support raising the wage — it can't be defined as a wedge solely for the left or right.

Detroit attorney Godfrey Dillard, who defended the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions policy in the Supreme Court, says he doesn't think the Legislature's actions will affect how many people will turn out to vote on the anti-affirmative action Michigan Civil Right's Initiative — another hot-button measure that could be on November's ballot. "People who are interested in the MCRI issue will go out and vote for it one way or the other, regardless of how they feel on the minimum wage issue."

Senate Republicans who think the legislation might suck momentum from the minimum wage ballot effort will have to wait and see. When we talked to John Freeman, director of Michigan Needs a Raise, he said his group was discussing what to do next. For now, though, they'll keep gathering signatures for a constitutional amendment.

"At this point, we're going to continue moving forward," he says.

Emerson, who's been a state senator since 1999, applauds the sentiment.

"I would encourage them to keep passing the petitions," he says. "I don't trust the Legislature."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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