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Senate advances minimum wage ballot measure


Republican lawmakers agreed Thursday to ask voters to increase the state’s minimum wage — but in a way that businesses actually want.

HCR 2014 given preliminary Senate approval would require employers to pay their workers at least $9.50 an hour by 2020. By contrast, the current voter-approved law, with annual inflation adjustments, might have boosted the current $8.05 minimum to perhaps close to $9.

But it’s not that the GOP lawmakers actually think that higher wages are a good idea.

“The underlying principle that we use the force of government to force other people to pay a certain wage to their employees is very, very distasteful to me,” said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, suggesting it smacks of socialism.

“When we get down here and we determine because we have the force of law behind us that we can take from one person and give to another person what is not ours, it’s a principle that is morally flawed,” she said. “But I understand the reason why we have to do it.”

That reason is the business community, led by the Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association, believe a $9.50 wage is ultimately better than what they have now.

The biggest objection to the 2006 voter-approved measure is that it allows cities, towns and counties to enact an even higher minimum wage than what the state requires. An initiative drive already is underway in Flagstaff to require employers there to pay at least $15 an hour by 2021; similar measures are being weighed by groups in other communities.

But the restaurants also want to tinker with another provision of the 2006 measure which says that workers who earn tips can be paid $3 an hour less than the minimum. The measure which now awaits a roll-call vote alters that to require that tipped workers be paid just 65 percent of the minimum, a figure that Sen. Martin Quezada said actually could mean a decrease in what they are paid from what is now required.

And there’s something else at work.

HCR 2014, if it gets final Senate and House approval, would be placed on the November ballot. And it would then compete with a separate initiative drive to create a $12 minimum wage by 2020 — and one that neither preempts local options nor alters the formula for tipped workers.

“This amendment is just a cynical attempt to undermine another ballot measure that is going on,” said Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, a measure she said if it gets the necessary signatures will pass.

Arizona had no minimum wage prior to 2006, with employers subject only to what is required in federal law, a figure that can be changed only through an act of Congress. That was $5.15 an hour.

The measure approved by voters that year enacted a $6.75 figure for Arizona. And it requires annual increases to match inflation.

The result is now a state wage of $8.05 an hour, versus the current $7.25 federal figure.

Steve Chucri, the executive director of the restaurant group, said his organization has pretty much accepted the situation. What it cannot accept, he said, is that local option.

But since the current law — and that option — was approved by voters, it cannot be altered by the Legislature.

That means the only way to eliminate it is put the issue back on the ballot. And that’s exactly what the Republicans have agreed to do.

“HCR 2014 takes into account the business owners’ perspective, providing employers predictability and certainty to be successful,” said Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, in supporting the $9.50 proposal.

Democrat senators said the measure to hike the current minimum wage is going in the right direction. But they said that, as crafted by the restaurant association, it’s not acceptable.

It starts with that local option. Hobbs said there’s no reason to believe that local officials and voters would make bad decisions in deciding that a higher wage is appropriate.

“They have as much stake in businesses succeeding in their communities as we do as a state in having businesses succeed in our state,” she said.

And Quezada said a local option acknowledges a fiscal reality: The cost of living across Arizona is not uniform.

“The wage that is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment, for example, in the Flagstaff metro area is $19.87,” he said.

“In Maricopa County, that’s $17.46,” Quezada continued. “In Mohave County that’s $14.46. In Yuma, it’s $16.42.”

Hobbs said the measure also is missing something else: Paid sick leave.

She proposed a requirement for employers to provide at least one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked, capped at 40 hours a year for companies with fewer than 10 workers and 56 hours for larger firms. Hobbs said the alternative is that people will go to work sick.

“And that’s not good for any of us in the public,” she said. Her proposal was rejected by the Repubican majority.

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