Untold reality of state's minimum wage debate

Initiatives can't be repealed for two years, but can still be amended
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, left, speaks with Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, on the Senate floor last week.

Whether a minimum wage increase is approved by voters or lawmakers, the result will be the same: The Legislature will have the power to make changes.

Backers of the August ballot initiative are concerned the Legislature is taking up the matter so it has the ability to strip parts of the bill in future years, which they argue couldn’t happen with a voter-approved initiative.

Think again.

The Alaska Constitution states that an approved ballot initiative can’t be repealed for at least two years. The next line in Article 11, Section 6 tells a different tale than what the public and legislators have been led to believe: ballot initiatives “... may be amended at any time.”

Opponents of HB384, introduced by House Republicans to raise the state minimum wage, worry the bill is a precursor to history repeating itself and not the result of a genuine interest in the issue.

“For previously free-market Republicans to suddenly find God and religion and want a minimum wage increase is purely political,” Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, told the Empire Tuesday.

In 2002, the Legislature passed a bill to increase the state minimum wage. Because the bill was substantially similar to a ballot initiative that year, the initiative was pulled from the polling box. The following year, lawmakers stripped a key component out of the new law.

Initiative vs. Legislation

This time around, the initiative’s backers have urged lawmakers to ignore HB384 so the increases are safeguarded for at least two years if approved by voters in the August primary.

“It would be interesting to have a redo of the House vote once folks realize that there really is not a benefit for those wishing for the initiative process to occur,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.

In the 1977 Alaska Supreme Court case Warren v. Thomas, then-Justice Roger Conner wrote, “the constitution thus vests broad authority in the legislature to vary the terms of an initiated law, after its adoption, by the process of amendment.”

He went on to call the ability a “check and balance against the initiative process.”

Still, according to the Alaska Attorney General’s office, that doesn’t mean lawmakers could “effectively repeal” the initiative by drastic amendment next year.

“It’s not black and white,” said assistant attorney general Cori Mills. “It has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but it can be amended in accordance to the constitution within those two years.”

A political game

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, spoke against HB384 on the House floor Sunday, saying it offers less protection than the initiative.

“If 70 percent of voters support the minimum wage increase, and for it to keep going up annually — this Legislature will never have the guts to touch it,” Gara said Tuesday. “By knocking it off the ballot, voters never get invested in this, and they can just reverse it next year or the year after.”

Beltrami said the main reason the AFL-CIO opposes the legislative bill is because unions can — and will — file a lawsuit if a ballot initiative is amended. That approach won’t work if the Legislature amends its own bill.

“If they pass (HB384), there’s no question they can do whatever they want next year,” Beltrami said. “If it goes to the ballot, it’s a lot more murky, and that’s a better safeguard.”

Republicans in the House and Senate have said they will not support changing the law within the next two years, and the House attached a note to the bill stating as much.

“I will do all that I can to stop any change into the current bill that we passed,” House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, told reporters shortly after the Sunday night vote.

But Democrats and others who remember 2003 say those promises mean little to nothing because there is nothing binding about them.

“Republicans are willing to do whatever it takes to get this off the ballot,” said Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage and the House minority leader.

The claims of political motivations go both ways, however.

“It’s clear that there is a dual purpose to this initiative,” Micciche said.

In a recent interview with the Empire, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell said there isn’t a difference between the effectiveness of an initiative-created law and one proposed by the Legislature.

“If people are opposed to running virtually the same bill as legislation, then there must be a political motivation involved related to elections and driving turnout,” Parnell said.

Among legislators, there is a popular belief that a minimum wage initiative will bring voters out to the polls in August. Higher turnout could have large implications for certain elections and other items on the ballot, including a question that asks voters whether they want to repeal significant oil tax cuts passed last year.

Beltrami said having the issue on the primary ballot will likely benefit candidates the union supports, but that the turnout component is not why they want it on the ballot.

“I just don’t want them to mess with it (next year),” he said.

Why now?

The bill’s architects, including Chenault, have said their motivation is to carry out the will of the people.

Support for the bill grew after a March legislative poll indicated a substantial majority of Alaskans favor an increase to the minimum wage.

“The people want this, and that’s our job to do the will of the people,” said Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Opponents are skeptical of the timing of the legislation, which was introduced late in the legislative session and heard in committee only once before heading to a full floor debate and vote.

“I don’t think anyone here in the building really, truly believes that we should pass laws just because there’s an initiative on the ballot,” said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage and the minority leader. “We see this as an election year ploy, and we’re not going to fall for it.”

That’s something members from both sides can agree on — just for different reasons.

“The proportion of Alaskans working at minimum wage is so low ... I think the whole issue is an election gimmick,” Micciche said. “But if people feel it’s important, then we should vote on the issue.”

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage and the Senate Rules Committee chairwoman, said the fate of the bill will not be decided by the Republican leadership privately.

“The issue of minimum wage will rise and fall based on Senate support, or lack of support,” she said in an email.

Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said the bill is vying for attention with other major issues — education funding, the capital budget, the state’s participation in a major gasline project — as the session winds down.

If Senate is to pass the bill remains to be seen, he said.

“It’s going to be close, but we haven’t done a final power check on that yet,” Huggins said, adding with a smile, “we can crank that up pretty quick.”

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