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Groups unite to sue state over sick leave law

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Calling the measure unconstitutional, a major union, state lawmakers and city council members are asking a judge to void a new state law designed to block local governments from telling private employers they have to provide paid time off for workers.

The lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court contends HB2579 runs afoul of restrictions placed on the Legislature by voters over measures approved at the ballot. The challengers want a ruling that the measure cannot take effect as scheduled in August.

That move, if successful, would mark the second time in two years that the state has had to back down over local regulation of employment. Attorney General Mark Brnovich last year agreed not to enforce a 2013 attempt by the Republican-controlled Legislature to limit the power of local governments to set their own minimum wages.

The fight surrounds Proposition 202, a 2006 voter-approved law that established a state minimum wage of $6.75 an hour. With inflation, that has grown to $8.05.

It also specifically allows cities, towns and counties to enact even higher figures.

In 2013, with some cities looking at their own “living wage” proposals, lawmakers voted to preempt those.

But Brnovich essentially ruled that measure illegal and unenforcable because it conflicts with the 2006 initiative. And the Arizona Constitution specifically prohibits lawmakers from altering or repealing voter-approved laws unless they have a super-majority vote and unless the new measure “furthers the purpose” of the original.

That 2015 law failed on both counts.

So, unable to cap wages, business interests came back with a new plan this year: Preempt local laws on sick leave and other fringe benefits. And they crafted the measure in a way designed to get around the 2006 law.

HB2579 specifically redefines “wages” — the thing that Brnovich said cannot be preempted — to include only the monetary compensation. Everything else would be redefined as “nonwage compensation.”

More to the point, the change declares such “nonwage” compensation to be of “statewide concern” and “not subject to further regulation by a city, town or other political subdivision of the state.” Put simply, the law would effectively preempt proposals in several Arizona communities to require things like paid sick time.

That’s precisely what business interests want.

Draft ordinances for paid sick leave are being considered in Tucson and Tempe. But Chianne Hewer, lobbyist for the Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said things like paid time off should not be subject to local regulation.

But attorney Jim Barton, in his legal briefs, said HB2579 is no more legal than the proposal Brnovich found wanting last year. He represents the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99 which is leading the lawsuit.

He points out the 2006 law specifically says that a local government “may by ordinance regulate minimum wages and benefits within its geographic boundaries.” That, he contends, makes HB2579 illegal.

Barton also said this law, like the one Brnovich voided, also fails to meet the exceptions for overriding what voters have enacted.

He said it does not “further the purpose” of the 2006 law.

“Rather, HB2579 directly conflicts with Prop 202 by removing local authority over benefits, including but not limited to employee paid sick leave benefits, even though the state’s voters authorized that local control when they approved Prop 202,” the lawsuit states.

He also said the measure fails the second test for overriding voter measures: Getting approval of three-fourths of both the House and Senate. The actual house vote was 34-26; the Senate tally was 18-11.

Republican lawmakers who backed the measure defended their votes.

“This is a bill that is entirely consisted with the Republican philosophy of limited government,” argued  Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. And Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said it “is not the role of government to tell businesses what they should be paying their employees,” a sentiment she said extended to benefits.

But Rep. Stefanie Mach, D-Tucson, said she sees no reason to override what cities decide if it in the best interests of their residents.

No date has been set for a hearing.

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