Foes of an initiative to hike the minimum wage to $12 an hour have no legal right to challenge whether the signatures were gathered by people who were unqualified, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joshua Rogers ruled Friday.
In his decision, Rogers acknowledged various claims by the Arizona Restaurant Association that some of the people who circulated the petitions had not complied with all of the requirements of state law. That includes registering with the secretary of state’s office, not having been convicted of felonies, and providing an Arizona address where they could be contacted if necessary.
In fact, the judge said, based on those requirements, he would have thrown out “a score” of petitions circulated by those people, potentially leaving initiative backers with insufficient signatures.
But Rogers did not do that for one simple reason: He said challengers waited too long to file suit. And that means any and all of their claims are legally void and Proposition 206 can go on the ballot,
Arizona law does allow any person to challenge the registration of circulators. But Rogers said there is a caveat.
“A challenge may not be commenced more than five days after the date on which the petitions for which the circulator is required to be registered are filed with the secretary of state,” he pointed out. And Rogers said the lawsuit was not filed within that period.
Rogers specifically rejected the contention of attorneys for the challengers that the measure should be read to mean “five business days” which would exclude Saturday and Sunday from the count — and would have meant the complaint was filed in time.
“Courts are to interpret a statute according to the ordinary meaning of its terms unless a specific definition is given or the context clearly indicates that a special meaning was intended,” the judge wrote.
Steve Chucri, executive director of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said paperwork already has been filed to take the issue to the state Supreme Court.
“We believe that there is a valid argument to be made on that portion of the ruling,” he said.
More to the point, Chucri contends that if the high court concludes the lawsuit is filed in time, the rulings already made by Rogers about unqualified petition circulators will leave initiative backers with fewer than the 150,642 valid signatures they need to put the issue on the November ballot.
If that happens, it could be close.
Backers submitted nearly 272,000 signatures. But after a preliminary review, Secretary of State Michele Reagan struck many of the names, leaving the measure with just 238,937 signatures.
But Tomas Robles, who chairs the Arizona Healthy Working Families initiative, expressed optimism that the voters will get the last word.
“This initiative is about giving our fellow citizens a chance to empower themselves and decide what is best for our state,” he said in a prepared statement. “Who cannot see the positive in that?”
Voters adopted the first minimum wage law in 2006 when Arizona employers were subject only to the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. The measure, approved on a 2-1 margin, boosted it immediately to $6.75, with a requirement for annual adjustments based on inflation that has pushed the figure to $8.05.
This measure, if approved, would hike that immediately to $10 next year, hitting $12 by 2020, with future inflation-indexed increases. It also would mandate at least three days of paid sick leave a year, with five days for employees of larger firms.
Chucri said such changes would be devastating to his industry which operates on low margins. He also said it could hurt many of the people it intends to help, with many operations deciding they can no longer afford as many employees as they now have.
If the Supreme Court refuses to disturb Rogers’ ruling and the measure remains on the ballot, much of the debate is likely to be the question of who would be affected.
Business interests have characterized the minimum wage as more of a “training wage” paid only to teens and new employees.
But Robles said figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 770,000 Arizonans — close to a quarter of the labor force — are making less than $10 an hour and would get an immediate boost.
He also estimated about 934,000 Arizonans are in jobs where employers provide no paid sick leave.
What is not in dispute is that $8.05 translates out to $16,744 a year.
For a single person, the federal government considers anything below $11,880 a year to be living in poverty. That figure is $16,020 for a family of two and $20,160 for a family of three.
That’s part of what has driven similar living wage efforts elsewhere in the country. But Chucri said the idea of a $12 minimum won’t sell with voters here.