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Latest GOP minimum wage salvo could spark restaurant war

Republican state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, may have just turned up the heat in the fight over increasing Michigan’s minimum wage. But the petition campaign – headed by Raise Michigan – is already planning its pushback.

Richardville proposed yesterday his own legislation to raise the state minimum wage from $7.40 to $8.15, and a boost for tipped workers, too. But, really, this is not so much about raising the minimum wage as derailing the petition drive underway to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour plus a really big raise for tipped workers.

The Richardville proposal is separate from an earlier bill sponsored by Senator Rick Jones,R-Eaton Rapids, that would also raise the minimum wage. That one also meant to blunt the petition drive.

Both were introduced because it appears the petition drive is on track to turn in the necessary number of signatures before the deadline at the end of the month. Under the Michigan Constitution, once those signatures are certified, the state Legislature would have 40 days to vote it into law. If it doesn’t – the question goes on the November ballot.

And the polling shows, it’s pretty popular. Popular enough, Democrats hope, to boost turnout among their voters who tend to stay home in mid-term elections.

The Richardville measure dials up the fight because it could actually cripple the petition drive before it turns in its signatures, or at least before they’re certified as valid and official. Which would mean all that work – the organization, the money raised and spent, the signatures gathered – could be for nothing. And that’s because, with some legislative sleight of hand, the Richardville bill would make the existing minimum wage law disappear and replace it with a new law.  Even though it would have substantially the same language as the existing statute, it would still be a new law that just might be untouchable by this petition drive. The petition drive would be calling for a change in a law that technically no longer exists.

The minimum wage campaign’s response? Well, as The Dude said in “The Big Lebowski: “This aggression will not stand, man…”

The Raise Michigan campaign says both the Richardville and Jones bills are too stingy – they don’t lift minimum-wage workers out of poverty, and are non-starters.

After May 28, the petition signature deadline, the Raise Michigan campaign will have a cadre of volunteers who are no longer busy collecting signatures. The campaign is ready to put them to work knocking on doors in Richardville’s Senate district (which could be a nuisance, but the majority leader is term-limited).

But the campaign is also taking aim at the No. 1 opponent of the $10.10 minimum wage (which would also apply to tipped workers) – the Michigan Restaurant Association and its members. The MRA says the tipped-wage hike, in particular, would be fatal to some of its members’ businesses.

Raise Michigan is already planning political action such as picketing in front of some prominent chain restaurants’ busiest locations. We’re talking Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Buffalo Wild Wings, just to name a few. The plan is to force customers to choose between crossing a picket line and dining in those spots.

There is also a legal strategy being developed (assuming the Richardville measure is passed and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder). It could look something like a complaint that the Richardville bill is an attempt to circumvent the voters’ right to initiate a law under the Michigan Constitution.

That may or may not succeed in court, but a legal battle could pack a political punch by making the minimum wage an issue for Democrats to use against Republicans in state Supreme Court races. That’s raising the stakes, too.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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