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Minimum-wage war could backfire on Michigan GOP

Jack Lessenberry

Here’s a three-part prediction for you:  First, the minimum wage bill passed by the Michigan Senate will never become law – not in anything like the way it looks now.

Second, there will be a minimum wage proposal on the ballot, though no one can say if it will pass and what happens if it does.

And finally, what looked like a triumph for the Republicans a few days ago could well backfire – and end up driving angry Democratic voters to the polls.

Here’s what’s going on. As you probably know, a group called Raise Michigan has been collecting signatures to put a proposal on the ballot that would gradually raise the minimum wage from the current $7.40 an hour to $10.10.

So far as I can tell, it looks like they will have more than enough. Business interests don’t like this, of course; they never like being told they have to pay their workers more money. And what they really don’t like is that this bill would also gradually make the minimum wage for tipped workers, like restaurant servers, equal with everyone else.

That, they claim, would put mom-and-pop hamburger stands out of businesses. But there is a lot of support for raising the minimum wage. And Republicans are frightened of something else: a massive turnout in November. If those folks show up for the minimum wage, they’ll also vote for Mark Schauer – not to mention every other Democrat on the ballot. So Republicans in the state Senate did something smart. They passed a law that raises the minimum wage to $9.20 an hour and provides for it to rise with inflation.

They also gave tipped workers a modest increase, but one which still leaves them below four dollars an hour. And their bill also would repeal and replace the old bill. That, they believe, would make the current petition drive meaningless, even if it gets on the ballot. Clever? Indeed. It won bipartisan support. But things quickly fell apart. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce denounced the bill.

That almost certainly means this isn’t passing the House in anything like its current form. Meanwhile, Dave Woodward, a leader of the Raise Michigan ballot drive coalition, vowed to fight on regardless. And a recent ruling by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy appears to imply that proposals enacted by a vote of the people may trump anything done by judges or legislatures.

About all that seems clear is that none of this is going to be resolved anytime soon. The Legislature may eventually pass a watered-down bill, mainly to try and thwart the ballot drive. But if they do, they will lose any bipartisan support. Elephants have long memories, and Republicans should remember what happened to them 14 years ago: They put an amendment on the ballot calling for vouchers for private schools.

The resulting flood of angry voters to the polls not only defeated the amendment, they defeated Spencer Abraham, the only Republican Michigan has sent to the U.S. Senate in 42 years.

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