The Missouri state legislature has passed a bill that will prevent any local government from enforcing an ordinance which increases the minimum wage above the state level. This means that no city in Missouri will be able to increase the minimum wage above the state minimum of $7.70/hr, even if its residents overwhelmingly support such an increase. The passage of this bill is a significant step backwards in the fight to ensure a living wage in Missouri, and an impediment to achieving even local change.
The Missouri state minimum wage is well below what can reasonably be considered a living wage, even though it is slightly above the federal minimum wage. A minimum wage worker in Missouri who is able to get 40 hours a week and doesn’t take a single week off during the year will only make $15,080 a year. This is significantly lower than what MIT estimates a single adult would require to live comfortably in Missouri ($21,126 a year), and only a fraction of what they estimate a single parent requires to live comfortably ($43,310 a year).
Attacking Progress in St. Louis
In 2015, St. Louis increased its minimum wage to $10/hr, which would have risen to $11/hr in 2018. Sadly, this minimum wage increase was challenged in court and enjoined (stopped from being implemented) until May 5, when the Missouri Supreme Court finally ruled that the ordinance was legal. This victory for a more humane minimum wage is short-lived, as the preemption bill is expected to go into effect on August 28 and will reduce the legal minimum wage back to $7.70/hr.
Put simply, the short timespan (seven days) between St. Louis finally getting the go ahead to implement their minimum wage increase and the passage of this law through the state legislature is no coincidence. Business interests have a vested interest in not allowing even a single city to raise the minimum wage and enough influence over legislators to get such a bill passed. If cities are allowed to increase their minimum wage, it will create test cases that demonstrate the positive effects of a living wage and disprove fear-mongering over job losses. If this is allowed, it makes it far harder to fight against statewide minimum wage increases, thus a preemption bill is a very good investment for pro-business groups and politicians.
The political battle lines over this bill were clear: the Republican majority in the Missouri legislature passed this bill with the support of business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce. The Democratic minority in the Missouri legislature opposed the bill, with the support of unions, activists and members of the Fight for $15 movement, but was unable to stop it via a filibuster due to a procedural trick employed by the GOP. Unfortunately, the Democrats were unable to force Republican defections and stop this bill from passing, and now it sits on the Republican governor’s desk, waiting to be signed.
This partisan breakdown of the vote exposes just how vapid the GOP’s rhetoric about small government and local control are. When liberals try to increase to the federal minimum wage, the GOP inevitably argues that local politicians should decide what is best for their jurisdiction because they are the most knowledgeable about the local economy and most accountable to their citizens. However, as we see here, when local politicians decide that their jurisdiction needs to increase the minimum wage, the GOP reverses their argument and claims that local government shouldn’t be allowed to set their own minimum wage. The only conclusion given this bipolar rhetoric is that the GOP supports giving power over the minimum wage to whatever level of government they currently control.
Preemption Laws Are Spreading
This type of preemption legislation is becoming increasingly common in recent years, and Missouri is the 23rd state where cities lack the authority to increase their minimum wage. While some of these states simply never granted this power to cities (e.g. Colorado, Oregon and New Hampshire), many states have passed preemption laws that take away city powers when they push progressive policies. In addition to preempting wage increases, many of these states have implemented preemption laws against union and worker protections, as well as mandatory paid leave laws.
The proliferation of preemption laws in recent years is largely due to two factors. First, the Republicans have virtually dominated many state legislatures since the 2010 Tea Party wave and are ideologically disposed to eliminate worker protections. Second, there has been a concerted and well-funded effort by pro-business organizations—such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—to spread pro-business policies throughout state legislatures by influencing state policy makers.
ALEC is a group that takes corporate donations and uses them to “educate” state legislators, oftentimes at lavish retreats, and create “model legislation” to be tweaked slightly and introduced by ALEC-associated politicians into their respective legislature. ALEC’s model bill for a minimum wage preemption law is aptly named the “Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act” and is available on their website. While this bill isn’t identical to the Missouri bill, both share the same ideological underpinnings and justifications.
Increasing the minimum wage is a vital progressive priority and the more states which pass preemption bills there are, the harder it is to achieve meaningful change. Preemption laws like the one that will soon be signed into law in Missouri cannot be ignored and must be fought against wherever possible.
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