State Lawmakers in Missouri and Alabama Move to Squash Local Minimum Wage Increases

by Mitchell Hirsch

A bill barring local governments from establishing their own minimum wages or other economic benefits for their citizens was enacted this week by super-majorities of Missouri state legislators when they voted to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s earlier veto of that measure.  By votes of 114-46 and 23-9 the Missouri House and Senate were able to corral the two-thirds majorities needed for the veto override, turning HB 722 – the so-called local wage preemption bill – into state law.  Now cities and counties will be prohibited from instituting minimum wage levels higher than the state minimum, which is currently a paltry $7.65 per hour, just 40 cents higher than the federal minimum wage.

Recently, both St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri passed local minimum wage ordinances – raising minimum wages to $11 by 2018 and $13 by 2020 respectively – and because they were enacted on or before August 28, they should remain in effect despite the imposition of the legislature’s ban, even as the same business lobbies that pushed through the veto override attempt to block or roll back those ordinances through court challenges and other legal maneuvers.  But now other cities and counties will be prohibited from instituting minimum wage levels higher than the state minimum.

“It is deeply disturbing that a super-majority of Missouri’s legislators think that keeping wages down for the lowest-paid workers, and suppressing local democracy, should be among their highest priorities.  It is simply shameful,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, in response to the veto override action.

The Missouri preemption bill was originally designed to prohibit local ordinances banning plastic shopping bags at grocery stores, and was sponsored by Republican Rep. Dan Shaul, who just happens to be the director of theMissouri Grocers’ Association.  But other major business groups’ lobbyists and Republican legislative leaders got a hold of the bill and rewrote it to expand the preemption prohibitions to cover local minimum wages, living wage provisions and workers’ local benefits such as paid sick days.  After it passed the legislature, with only Republicans’ support, Democratic Gov. Nixon vetoed it, sending it to the legislature’s special veto session, where that veto was overridden. The bill’s supporters argued that minimum wage increases should only occur at the level of state government – something they unremarkably refuse to allow anyway – and that local governments should be stripped of their democratic rights to enact such wage laws themselves.

Meanwhile, you may recall that the city of Birmingham, Alabama, last month passed its own local minimum wage, raising it in steps to $10.10 per hour by 2017, becoming the first city in the Deep South to do so.  Alabama state lawmakers attempted, but failed, to squash Birmingham’s action and ban it and all other cities and counties in the state from passing local minimum wage ordinances during a special legislative session. Supporters of higher local minimum wages in Alabama demonstrated in the well-to-do suburb that is home to the bill’s sponsor, and at last word, a vote on the bill in the legislature was postponed. Although the preemption bill died without a vote during the special session, it is likely to be brought up again when the state legislature reconvenes in a regular session in February 2016.

Alabama is one of five states that does not have a state minimum wage law, and one of 21 states where the minimum wage is set at the federal level — currently $7.25 per hour.

Similar preemption bills passed by the legislatures in Montana and Virginia were vetoed by their Democratic governors earlier this year and their vetoes were sustained.  State preemption of local governments’ rights to enact municipal wage ordinances is a major focus of the corporate-sponsored, right-wing, anti-worker ALEC organization – the American Legislative Exchange Council.  ALEC puts considerable resources into promoting preemption bills in state legislatures, so we’re likely to see more preemption battles elsewhere around the country.