The proposals in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next few years and then index it to inflation. In Washington state, where Seattle and SeaTac have already instituted a $15 hourly minimum, the wage would go to $13.50 by 2020. Arizona and Washington would also mandate that businesses provide paid sick leave to their employees.
What all four states share are legislatures that are either partly or entirely controlled by Republicans opposed to increasing the minimum wage by that amount. “Ballot initiatives are one of the few ways we can get this done, because conservatives control so many of the state legislatures,” said Ryan Johnson, executive director of the Fairness Project, which is campaigning across the country for wage hikes and paid leave policies.
While Democrats are hopeful they will make gains this fall, Republicans now have majorities in 69 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers. Yet when voters have had the chance to vote on increasing the minimum wage, they have approved the changes even while electing Republicans at the same time.
“It really does transcend partisan lines, and people really are capable of quote unquote splitting their ticket,” Johnson said. That past success in states like Alaska, Arkansas, and Nebraska—along with more recent polling showing strong support for lifting the wage—has given advocates confidence that the ballot measures will pass in each of the four states this year.
Nonetheless, the proposals all face stiff opposition from state affiliates of the National Restaurant Association and other business groups. “It’s no secret we oppose drastic increases to the minimum wage,” said Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the trade group. “As an industry of small business, any increase to the cost of labor—let alone a more than doubling of the federal minimum wage as some of these measures are calling for—will have a dramatic impact on a restaurant’s operations and hiring potential.”
“Ballot initiatives led by advocates without input or careful consideration from the very businesses they would affect are no way to determine wage and hour law,” she added.
In Arizona, a group of Republican lawmakers tried earlier this year to head off the ballot initiative by raising the state’s $8.05 minimum wage to $9.50 by 2020. But the effort failed in the state House and drew opposition from progressives who said the increase was too small. “We had little choice but to take it to the people,” said Suzanne Wilson, spokeswoman for the AZ Healthy Working Families Initiatives. “It was just not going to work for us.”
Later in the summer, the restaurant association sued to block the $12 proposal from going on the ballot by challenging the 271,000 signatures that advocates had submitted. But on Tuesday, the state Supreme Court threw out that challenge on another technicality, upholding a trial judge’s ruling that the lawsuit was filed too late.