Opinion
10:41 am
Tue January 28, 2014

Why Michigan's Democratic leaders aren't happy with a minimum-wage ballot campaign

There’s a new group called the Economic Justice Coalition which is seriously considering trying to get a proposal on the ballot to raise the minimum wage in Michigan.

You might think that would make Democrats happy. Their gubernatorial candidate, Mark Schauer, came out in favor of a minimum wage hike two months ago.

But Democratic leaders aren’t thrilled with a ballot campaign, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Now, it’s not that they don’t want a higher minimum wage.Virtually all of them do. Schauer said if elected, he would try to raise Michigan’s from the present $7.40 an hour to $9.25 an hour over three years.

There are a couple things wrong with this picture, however. For one thing, that still wouldn’t be anything like a living wage. Working full-time, someone making Schauer’s maximum would make a little over $19,000 a year. True, that’s better than the current minimum wage salary of a little over $15,000.

But not much, and not even as much as minimum wage workers made in 1968. Adjusting for inflation, the minimum then was more than $10.60 an hour in today’s money.

Not exactly a king’s ransom, in a world where economic inequality has gotten steadily worse for the last 30 years.

But here’s the real problem with Schauer’s proposal: It has virtually no chance even if he does get elected governor, and Democrats recapture the House.That’s because no matter what else happens, Republicans will remain in control of the State Senate.

The most minimum wage workers could ever hope for is a compromise that might give them a small boost, but certainly less than the meager amount Schauer’s proposal would provide.

Should Governor Snyder get reelected, however, kiss any thought of a boost in the minimum wage goodbye.       

For all those reasons, some folks want to bypass the lawmakers and start a petition drive to put this on the ballot.

Meredith Quinlan, a spokesperson, told me this is something they want to decide in the next few weeks.They don’t know yet whether they are going for a bill, or a constitutional amendment, which would take more signatures, but which would be harder to repeal.    

Now you might expect Democratic leaders to throw their support enthusiastically behind this, but they aren’t. And here’s why.

For years, they spent millions on ballot issues, some of them half-cocked and harebrained, which were either disqualified by the courts or turned down by the voters. That helped lead to longtime party chair Mark Brewer being fired last year.

Lon Johnson has vowed not to do that. There are all sorts of reasons they don’t want this on the ballot. Shadowy groups like Americans for Prosperity would pour vast sums into a drive to defeat this. If they do, it would be seen as a heavy defeat for the poor.

To try and prevent this, progressive groups may in turn spend heavily to get it passed. Including money that might otherwise go to Democratic candidates. My guess is that members of this coalition are going to knock themselves out regardless to get this on the ballot.

Should they succeed, it will be interesting to see how Democratic Party leaders react.