How State Governments are Fighting to Suppress Local Minimum Wage Raises

As support for raising the minimum wage crescendos across the country, opponents—namely: big business and its lobbyists—are digging deeper and deeper into their bag of tricks for ways to keep wages down.

Lately, one of their favorite methods has been to push state legislators to pass laws that essentially block, or “preempt” cities and counties from raising the local minimum wage above the level set by the state—even in high-cost areas. Since this legislation tends to fly under the radar, it can be hard to combat, but workers, city and county officials, and advocates are fighting hard to protect the rights of cities and counties to raise the minimum wage in their communities.

Several of these preemption fights have come to a head in recent weeks, resulting in some clear victories for campaigns to raise wages; though in each case the situation is still evolving, and the fate of the workers impacted remains uncertain.

One major win for low-wage workers occurred last month in Maryland, when Delegate Dereck E. Davis of Prince George’s County admitted that a minimum wage preemption bill he was sponsoring in his state’s General Assembly lacks the support to move forward, and will die in committee.

The bill would have prohibited Maryland’s cities and counties from increasing the local minimum wage above the state’s level of $8.75, including in Davis’s own county and in neighboring Montgomery County, which have both recently passed increases to account for their relatively high costs of living—both counties border Washington, D.C.

The Maryland General Assembly and other state legislatures have traditionally left many areas of policy up to local governments for this very reason. Cities and counties can have widely varying needs and challenges, so often it is simply more efficient to give local officials control over certain decisions (a practice that, by the way, is routinely applauded by many of the same politicians who seek to yank local control of the minimum wage, along with various civil rights and other laws).

The legislators that push for preemption, including Maryland’s Dereck Davis, typically claim that the measures are necessary to maintain a uniform business environment throughout a state. The most robust studies on the impact of raising the minimum wage locally, though, overwhelmingly indicate that local raises are not harmful to business. (Some small business groups, including the Main Street Alliance, are frequent supporters of minimum wage increases).

The reality is that these arguments are often a smokescreen for the influence of big business and corporate lobbyists, including the Koch brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which regularly teams up with Republican politicians to push preemption and a range of other conservative policies. That Davis is a Democrat from a state where voters strongly support raising the minimum wage makes his involvement in the preemption bill surprising, perhaps, but no less problematic.

In response, NELP and its allies—unwilling to let the voices of Maryland workers and communities be suppressed in this way—campaigned vigorously against the bill. NELP Researcher and Policy Analyst Yannet Lathrop testified before the Maryland House Economic Matters Committee on the matter earlier this month, noting the success of movements to raise the minimum wage in localities across the country, the widespread support of the American public for increases, and the extent to which raises benefit struggling working families—without producing any kind of significant problems for employers or the local business environment.

The validity of local raises was affirmed by another recent win for low-wage workers in Missouri, though the picture there is complicated.

On March 1, the Missouri Supreme Court found that a 2015 increase to the minimum wage in St. Louis was totally within the city’s authority—ruling against business groups who sued the city, claiming that state law preempted that and other local raises.

But while this news meant that minimum wage workers in St. Louis immediately received a long-awaited raise last week, conservative Missouri lawmakers remain intent on dismantling the increase, and are fast-tracking new bills to nullify the St. Louis raise and to preempt future local raises throughout the state, so pay for low-wage workers in St. Louis is, at the moment, still insecure.

A new preemption bill has already passed the Missouri House, while their counterparts in Iowa—another state that has seen several recent local increases to the minimum wage—met to discuss their own preemption legislation earlier this week—and could pass legislation any day.

So as encouraging as the wins in the Maryland statehouse and the Missouri Supreme Court are for low-wage workers and their communities, we should remain wary of future efforts at both the state and the federal level to block local raises—preemption tends to find a way to creep back up.

With attacks on working families coming from so many directions, fighting back won’t be easy, but it has never been more important.

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