Republicans move quickly to give state final say on minimum wage

House Republicans are fast-tracking bills meant to assert that only the state can set a minimum wage, while Democrats say the bills are a rushed effort that goes back on a promise legislators made two years ago to the people of St. Louis.

The state Supreme Court last week threw out 1998 language that prevented local governments from setting a minimum wage exceeding that set by the state.  In response, Representatives Dan Shaul (R-Imperial) and Jason Chipman (R-Steelville) introduced on March 1 House Bills 1193 and 1194, respectively, both of which would bar political subdivisions from requiring a minimum wage exceeding that of the state.

“What I’m trying to do is ensure that a community doesn’t become fragmented and businesses don’t continue to move out of the State of Missouri or the City of St. Louis due to fragmentation,” said Shaul, who said having the minimum wage vary in different parts of the state would hurt businesses and cause confusion.

“The state minimum wage is called ‘the state minimum wage’ because it is the state minimum wage,” said Shaul.

Gladstone Democrat Jon Carpenter said the bills ask the legislature to reverse a decision it made two years ago.

House Bill 722, passed in 2015, also had language barring the setting of a higher minimum wage by local governments.  It included a “grandfather clause,” allowing previous wage agreements between private vendors and the City of St. Louis to stand if they were enacted prior to August 28 of that year.

St. Louis enacted an ordinance on August 28, 2015, increasing its minimum wage first to $10 per hour this year and then to $11 per hour next year.  Lawsuits delayed implementation of that ordinance, which is now set to take effect later this month.

Carpenter said lawmakers in 2015 agreed the grandfather clause would also allow to stand the new St. Louis minimum wage ordinance, and argued that pending pay hike is why the bills are being moved so quickly.  Normally legislation goes through two committees before reaching the floor for debate, but these will go through only one.  They also include “emergency clauses,” which would make them effective immediately upon being signed by the governor.

“The reason for not waiting is so that we can pass the bill before people get their raises,” said Carpenter.  “If we do nothing, in a few weeks people in St. Louis are going to get a raise.  It’s the only reason to pass the bill this week.  It’s the only reason to attach an emergency clause to the bill.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay (D), who traveled to the Capitol to testify against the bills, called it “unbelievable,” that the proposals were offered.

“This legislative body just two years ago gave St. Louis the okay to raise the minimum wage.  Something happened in between.  There was a lawsuit that, of course, we won, and within a couple of days a bill is introduced in this board and it’s on the fast track,” said Slay.

Republicans acknowledge the bill is being fast-tracked, but say that is to protect businesses from disruption.

“I think you have to ask the business owners are they prepared to have their labor costs increase overnight without adding value to what they’re producing,” said Chipman.  “That’s a hard thing for a business to do, especially if you’re a business that’s wondering about, ‘Should I renew my lease in my building because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to afford the cost increase of labor?  Am I going to have to inflate my prices and then watch my competitors, who may be bigger than I am, not have to do it, and then I lose market share and they gain market share, then I end up having to lay people off?’”

The House Committee on Rules – Administrative Oversight heard, too, from some St. Louis restaurant owners who said the minimum wage hike would force them to chair their business models and let go of some staff, as well as from some St. Louis workers who said they struggle to survive on their current salaries and said the wage increase is needed for many people to pay for basic needs.

The committee, after more than three hours of testimony and debate, voted 10-4 along party lines to advance the bills.

Missouri House again endorses less time for unemployment benefits

The Missouri House has again voted to reduce the length of time people can claim unemployment benefits.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick again carried unemployment fund reform legislation as he did in 2015. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick again carried unemployment fund reform legislation as he did in 2015. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 288, sent to the Senate Thursday, would cut that time period from 20 to 13 weeks if the state’s unemployment rate is less than 6-percent.  It could increase if the jobless rate increases, reaching a maximum of 20 weeks if that rate exceeds 9-percent.

Republicans said the measure is meant to keep the state’s unemployment fund solvent when the economy takes a downturn.  Missouri has had to borrow money from the federal government to cover benefits in past economic slowdowns, and business owners have had to pay millions of dollars in interest on those loans.

“Missouri’s the only state that’s had to borrow in the last five recessions, so we’re trying to fix that,” said bill sponsor Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob).

Democrats including Gladstone representative Jon Carpenter called the bill unnecessary.  He pointed to other states with Republican leadership that offer 26-weeks of benefits and pay more each month.

“Don’t vote yes on this bill because we’ve got to keep the fund solvent.  Don’t let that be the argument unless somebody proves to you why that is – why that’s necessary when all these other states can do it,” said Carpenter.

Fitzpatrick said many of those states likely make getting benefits more difficult than does Missouri, allowing them to do more with fewer funds.

Representative Jon Carpenter urged his colleagues to vote against changes to Missouri unemployment benefits.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Jon Carpenter urged his colleagues to vote against changes to Missouri unemployment benefits. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Rick Brattin (R-Harrisonville) and other Republicans said 20 weeks is plenty of time for a person to find another job.

“Everyone here can do their due diligence and walk, and go through your districts and you will find ‘help wanted’ signs everywhere,” said Brattin.  “We don’t have a ‘jobs’ problem.  We have a ‘people willing to work problem’ within our districts.”

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, (D-St. Louis City) said that isn’t true in his district, and said it can often take more than three months for a person to learn the skills or earn the certification needed to take on a new job.

“When we’re talking about bills – especially unemployment compensation, that affects every single Missourian – only thing I ask is the thing that I’ll continue to ask every time I stand up here and talk about any bill, is that we take all communities into consideration,” said Franks.

The measure mirrors one the legislature endorsed over the veto of former Governor Jay Nixon in 2015 that the state Supreme Court threw out on a procedural issue.