Push for higher minimum wage finds supporters - and opposition

On either proposal, voters would have to weigh in

PHOENIX - Acceding to pressure from business interests and the governor, Republican state lawmakers are moving to undermine the ability of individual communities to establish their own "living wages" higher than the mandated state minimum.

The 5-3 vote Tuesday on HCR 2014 by the Senate Appropriations Committee came after a plea from Chianne Hewer, lobbyist of the Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association. That group, which unsuccessfully fought the 2006 initiative to establish a state minimum wage, has given up on convincing voters to rescind that action.

What the restaurants want to do now is short-circuit efforts in some communities to require employers to pay their workers even more.

The change would require voter approval in November. So Hewer's group included a sweetener to make the pre-emption go down easier: A boost to state wages to $9.50 an hour by 2020. The current figure is $8.05.

But the change actually would let restaurants pay less to workers who earn tips.

Tuesday's vote sends the measure to the full Senate.

If it makes the ballot, it might not be alone. Tomas Robles, executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, said Tuesday his organization is preparing its own ballot measure.

But this one would be far different: Robles said it would actually enhance what voters approved in 2006 to ensure the minimum wage automatically would go from $8.05 to "double digits" by 2020. And, like the current law, future increases would be tied to inflation.

Robles told Capitol Media Services his organization does not yet have an exact figure in mind, but will try to find a number that would help ensure success.

But Robles said polling to date has found more than 60 percent of those asked would back a minimum wage of at least $10 an hour, with a simple majority backing wages higher than that.

The initiative also would require employers to provide at least three days of paid sick time a year to workers, with five days for companies with more than 15 workers.

LUCHA could have an uphill fight: It needs more than 150,000 valid signatures on petitions by July 7 to qualify for the November ballot. But Robles said it has the promise of donations from local and national sources - he refused to provide names - to hire circulators.

And Robles said the measure would preserve the right of communities to enact their own higher wage requirements, the very thing HCR 2014 seeks to undermine.

This isn't the first bid by businesses to block local options. They got lawmakers to approve a preemption law in 2013.

That was aimed specifically at Flagstaff, where there is an active effort to enact a "living wage" measure. But voters in several other communities are looking at similar measures, including requirements for benefits such as paid time off.

Last year, however, Attorney General Mark Brnovich said the 2006 measure specifically permits a local option. And that, he said, cannot be overturned by lawmakers.

That makes going to voters the only alternative.

Hewer told lawmakers Tuesday many restaurants have operations in multiple communities and do not want to have to worry about differing laws. More to the point, she said restaurants are willing to support a series of wage increases now to get that preemption.

"We believe this is a fair balance to protect both the Arizona small businesses who pay these minimum wages while giving Arizona employees an improved (wage) rate that is known ahead of time for our small businesses," Hewer said.

Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said that's fine. But she said what the restaurants were offering is insufficient, proposing instead to take the minimum wage to $14 by 2020.

Republicans on the panel rejected that idea and then approved what the restaurants wanted.

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, said the legislation gives him some heartburn.

On one hand, Shooter said he does not believe the government should be setting minimum wages, much less actually increasing what voters mandated in 2006. But he said he supported this measure to "counterbalance the insane socialism" created by having a minimum wage in the first place.

That's also the assessment of Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who said she finds the whole issue of government-mandated wages distasteful - and beyond constitutional authority.

"That is not the proper role of government," she said.

But Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said legislators need to look at the issue of higher minimum wages from another angle. He said if workers earn more money, they won't qualify for government-subsidized health care, reducing costs to taxpayers.

This idea of swatting down local living wage laws already has the support of Gov. Doug Ducey.

"I want to see people make more money," he told Capitol Media Services earlier this month. "But I do think a patchwork confusing chaos-style system like California or other places that frustrated business owners that reduced jobs. That's a bad thing."