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Missouri’s blue-city, red-state divide over minimum wage

April 23, 2017 at 3:12 PM EDT
Some of the fiercest political battles are taking place between Democratic-controlled cities and Republican-led state legislatures over issues like minimum wage and plastic bag bans. Increasingly, those issues are decided through a political maneuver called preemption, when state lawmakers write laws that prevent cities from enforcing their local ordinances. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Chris Bury reports from Missouri. This is part of an ongoing series of reports called 'Chasing the Dream,' which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.

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This is part of an ongoing series of reports called ‘Chasing the Dream,’ which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.

By Saskia de Melker and Laura Fong

CHRIS BURY: Fast food workers such as Frances Holmes are caught in a tug of war between Democratic-majority cities and the Republican-controlled states where they live. The 54 year old, who is primary caretaker to a one-year-old, earns $9 an hour in a state where the minimum wage is $7.70. Her annual earnings last year: $13,000

FRANCES HOLMES: Even though I make $9 an hour, it’s not enough money. My rent is $840 a month, and it’s two incomes in my house, but we both work fast food jobs, so it’s still, it’s a struggle.

CHRIS BURY: Holmes lives in St. Louis, where she is engaged in a movement to get higher pay for workers in the city, because living here is more expensive than in other parts of Missouri. Under a bitterly contested local ordinance that passed in 2015, the city’s minimum wage was set to gradually rise from $7.65 to $11 an hour by January 2018.

CLERK: 16 aye votes, 8 nay votes.

SHANE COHN: $7.65 an hour it’s not enough to survive…

CHRIS BURY: Alderman Shane Cohn introduced the measure.

Why did you want to raise the minimum wage here in St. Louis?

SHANE COHN: I think it’s the right thing to do for working families and the economy as a whole. When we live in a consumer-driven economy, and when consumers don’t have money to spend, then our economy suffers as a result.

JOHN CHEN: You want to do the green tea mango?

CHRIS BURY: But some business owners in St. Louis opposed the move. At the Urban Eats café, in the working-class Dutchtown neighborhood, John Chen says hiking the minimum wage, even gradually, could convince some businesses to leave St. Louis or to cut employee compensation in other ways.

JOHN CHEN: For many small businesses in the neighborhood, they may have to cut down hours and reduce the employee, the job count, simply because you have to bring your minimum wage from $7.70 to $10 an hour without a clear and certainty of sales increase. It will have a detrimental effect.

CHRIS BURY: Business groups challenged the St. Louis ordinance in state court, and just hours before the first minimum wage hike was set to take effect in 2015, the judge sided with the businesses, saying the ordinance was “in conflict” with the state’s minimum wage law, which has gone up only a nickel an hour since then.

Dan Mehan is the president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

DAN MEHAN: If localities can do their own minimum wage, you’d have a patchwork of different wage rates that employers would be forced to adjust to whenever they’re in different areas of the state. So it’s a problem, and especially in the St. Louis area, where you have 96 municipalities in the St. Louis County alone, in addition to the city.

CHRIS BURY: But in February, Missouri’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling and upheld the higher St. Louis minimum wage. Republicans immediately introduced new legislation to preempt the St. Louis ordinance, putting it on hold once more.

PROF. TERRY JONES: Preemption is when a higher-level government tells a lower-level government, “You can’t do that.” Or, “You have to do it.”

CHRIS BURY: University of Missouri political science professor Terry Jones says the first preemption laws here and in many other states block municipalities from enacting gun control laws. They were backed by the National Rifle Association starting in the 1980s and 1990s.

TERRY JONES: It’s very forthright. It says everything dealing with guns are only the purview legally of the state legislature and the governor. Local communities cannot pass any kind of separate controls or regulations dealing with firearms.

CHRIS BURY: In Missouri, legislators who represent suburbs, small towns, and rural areas — not cities — hold most of the power. State representative Dan Shaul, a Republican from the outskirts of St. Louis, sponsored a bill to preempt all cities in Missouri from setting their own minimum wage.

DAN SHAUL: I think it comes down to consistency, having one basic set of rules across the whole state. It allows employers to have a consistency and reduce regulation. I think it’s just smart for business.

CHRIS BURY: But doesn’t the city of St. Louis and their representatives, don’t they know better what’s good for St. Louis than you do?

DAN SHAUL: I think, you know, I was elected for the betterment of the state of Missouri. And I think for us to remain competitive with other states, other geographical areas throughout the country, it’s our responsibility to make sure that Missouri has the best opportunity to bring jobs and grow our economy in Missouri.

SHANE COHN: I believe that as one of the economic engines of the state, we have a right to set the precedent in terms of how we treat our employees. When the state is neglecting its own workers and wage-earners, I think that it’s incumbent on local municipalities to take on those issues.

CHRIS BURY, Jefferson City, MO: Here in Missouri, Republicans dominate state government, controlling majorities in both houses of the legislature by wide margins and the governorship. In fact, Republicans hold unprecedented power in state capitals across the country. They enjoy majorities in 32 legislatures and hold the governor’s office in 33 states.

CHRIS BURY: Missouri is one of 26 states to preempt local minimum wage ordinances. Another is Alabama, which blocked Birmingham’s minimum wage increase last year.

According to Grassroots Change, a national group that tracks preemption, 15 Republican-controlled legislatures — and one with a Democratic majority — have adopted laws since 2010 that ban local requirements for paid sick days. Milwaukee voters approved a referendum for the benefit in 2008, and in 2011 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law a measure that preempts it.

Other state preemptions have prevented city regulations on plastic grocery bags, pesticides, e-cigarettes, and sugary drinks.

PROF. TERRY JONES: As a policy tool, preemption has been used primarily by the Republican Party, but even that’s a bit of an oversimplification, because it’s been at the urging of interest groups that are allied with the Republican Party. Those forces that want to fight the minimum wage find it very difficult to carry on that struggle in a progressive, highly Democratic community like a Kansas City or the city of St. Louis.

CHRIS BURY: At least 35,000 St. Louis workers earning at or near minimum wage have lost about $35 million dollars in wages since the city’s proposed higher rate was blocked in 2015.

CHRIS BURY: How much do you think you lost in those years by not having the $10 enacted?

FRANCES HOLMES: The fast food workers and low-wage workers, we lost a lot of money. I’m like one check away from being homeless at any time, you know what I mean?

CHRIS BURY: That frustration over lost wages led Holmes to Memphis where she joined a national protest seeking higher pay earlier this month.

In Kansas City, Missouri’s second largest metropolitan area, where the City Council passed a higher minimum wage last month, local leaders are also fighting back with a grassroots approach.

The Reverend Vernon Percy Howard Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Kansas City, helped to gather enough signatures for a ballot initiative set for this august to let Kansas City voters decide on an even higher minimum wage.

REVEREND VERNON PERCY HOWARD, JR: The people of Kansas City have said, ‘Let us vote on $15 per hour this coming August 2017!”

CHRIS BURY: Reverend Howard says the referendum is in response to years of unjust wages and a way to give Kansas city residents a bigger voice at the state capital.

REVEREND HOWARD: We have people who are there making decisions that impact us directly, but that don’t share our interests, and that’s an undercut and undermining of the democratic principle.

CHRIS BURY: They don’t live here.

REVEREND HOWARD: And don’t share our interests. And that’s why we have tried our best to create avenues in which we can seek empowerment here, locally.

CHRIS BURY: Some people in the cities would say this is Republicans who don’t live in the cities trying to dictate their values on us when we represent the people in the cities.

DAN SHAUL: I’m very sympathetic to their concerns. I think we both want the same thing, it’s just a different way of going about it. I want to see better jobs, more jobs. I think that’s the same thing they want. It’s just a different path of going about it.

CHRIS BURY: Frances Holmes, who’s seen her wages rise only one dollar an hour over the last three years, hopes state lawmakers will understand her point of view.

FRANCES HOLMES: What I have to say to the legislators, I mean, just for one week try to live on what I live on.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.