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Rumors of the demise of minimum wage petition drive are greatly exaggerated

So now that the Michigan Senate has approved a new, higher minimum wage, with bipartisan support (14 Rs, 10 Ds) no less, this is practically a done deal. Right?

Not so much. The headlines and stories that said it would “kill” the petition drive are speculative and premature.

This Senate bill is – at the bottom of it all – an effort to pull the rug out from under the ballot drive to raise the Michigan minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. It's a cause beloved by Democrats and progressives.

So why then did 10 out of 12 Senate Democrats go along with it? Particularly after some had already blasted the proposal as a gimmick and too paltry – especially for workers earning the lower tipped wage?

Well, some felt they had no choice. They couldn’t not vote for a minimum wage increase once it was put in front of them.

Democratic politicians who don’t vote to raise the minimum wage will always risk having that vote used against them later – if not this year then in some future election.

But here’s another wrinkle: Even though the minimum wage proposal is widely seen as a turnout tool to help Democrats bring out their voters, there are some Democrats who question whether the money, time, and other resources spent on a ballot drive might be better spent on helping Democratic candidates.

In the end, only two Democrats voted against it, and with 14 Senate Republicans, sent it to the House.

So, is this a win for the Republicans?

Not really. Not necessarily. That’s because just as many Democrats feel they just have to support pretty much any and every minimum wage increase, there are Republicans who have no choice but to oppose a minimum wage hike in whatever iteration it presents itself.

The minimum wage not only violates the GOP’s free-market instincts, but could be used against them in a Republican primary where conservative bona fides are an issue.

After the Senate vote sent the bill to the House yesterday, the spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, he, well, let’s just say, cast a gentle rain upon it.

He made it clear this was not a happy development as far as the House Republican caucus is concerned.

Not to mention, all this “sturm und drang” over the minimum wage bill could all be for naught. “This basically tries to undermine our constitutional right to petition our government and we’re going to continue and plow forward,” David Woodward, of the Raise Michigan petition drive, said yesterday after the Senate vote.

Woodward said Raise Michigan will file its petition signatures at the end of the month to force the question in front of the Legislature or onto the November ballot. And, he said they’re ready to fight it out in court.

All of this is brand-new political and legal territory. What happens when the Legislature makes a change that affects a petition drive in the field? Can state elections officials just unilaterally declare that a petition campaign that’s done everything it’s supposed to do is moot?

And, if it goes to the ballot and wins – and most of the polling suggests it probably would – does the Senate action matter? Would that vote undo what the Legislature did, and basically put the law back on the books?

That is an open question. What the courts call “a matter of first impression.”

But we do have a recent United States Supreme Court decision that deals with ballot questions. It’s the main opinion in the case of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette versus the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

In that opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said laws that are enacted by direct citizen action, by ballot drives, deserve the highest level of respect by the system.

We just might see a case that pits what voters decide against what the Legislature wants.

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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