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Proposal to lower minimum wage for young workers dead

A bid to allow employers to pay some young workers less than the voter-mandated minimum wage is effectively dead.

The Senate Rules Committee decided Monday that the proposal by Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, would require a three-fourths vote for approval. That is based on the conclusion by Senate staff attorney Chris Kleminich that HB 2523 would effectively amend two separate public votes to create and raise the state’s minimum wage.

What makes that crucial is the Arizona Constitution spells out that lawmakers can alter or repeal any voter-approved initiative only with a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate.

The measure squeaked out of the House on a 31-29 party-line margin, far short of the 45 needed. And it would now need 23 of the 30 senators.

But the 13 Senate Democrats have expressed opposition. That leaves HB 2523 short of the votes needed for final approval.

“We’re going to be counting noses,” said Senate President Karen Fann. And the Prescott Republican said she won’t even allow the bill to go to the full Senate for debate if there is no possibility of approval.

Fann, however, expressed no particular sorrow about the bill’s fate.

“Personally, I think the bill stinks,” Fann said. “And you can put me on record on that one.”

Grantham told Capitol Media Services he disagrees with the lawyer’s opinion as well as the committee vote.

“You can find attorneys to tell you whatever you want,” he said.

But it isn’t just Kleminich who contends HB 2523 can’t go anywhere without a three-fourths vote.

Last month, Ken Behringer, general counsel of the nonpartisan Legislative Council, declared that HB 2523 runs afoul of what voters have approved. He wrote that the plain language of that measure applies to all employees, regardless of age. And that, Behringer said, means it is subject to the constitutional requirement for the three-fourths vote.

And just last week, in an informal legal opinion, the Attorney General’s Office reached the same conclusion.

The fight is over the fact that Arizonans voted in 2006 to establish a state minimum wage that is higher than what is required under federal law. At that time the federal minimum was $5.15 an hour; the initiative pushed it immediately to $6.75.

With subsequent increases tied to cost of living, it reached $8.05 an hour by 2016.

That year, however, voters approved yet another measure to increase the state minimum to $10. With scheduled future increases it is now $11 and will go to $12 next year.

Grantham, backed by business interests, said that has created a hardship, particularly for small companies which cannot afford to pay that much for basic labor. And that, he said, has resulted in fewer jobs for young people.

Unable to repeal the voter-approved law, Grantham and his business allies sought to do an end-run of sorts.

The legislation would create a new category of “casual” employees: those who younger than 22, going to school full time and working only part time. And those in that category, Grantham argued, would not be covered by what voters had approved.

Kleminich disagreed.

He said the first ballot measure, the one in 2006, created a “broad definition” of who is an employee subject to the minimum wage law. Kleminich said the state can’t, on its own, simply decide that not everyone who works is an employee.

The 2016 version that puts Arizona on the path to a $12-an-hour minimum wage, the attorney said, keeps that same definition. And that, said Kleminich, means HB 2523 would be seeking to overturn what voters said, something that cannot be done without that politically impossible three-fourths vote for this issue.

Even before Monday’s decision by the Rules Committee, there was some doubt whether the measure could have garnered a simple majority.

Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, objected to the idea that an employer could pay just $7.25 an hour to someone solely because he or she is a student while someone the same age who is not in school would have to be paid $11 an hour. He said that effectively penalizes students for taking part-time jobs to finish their schooling.

Fann herself expressed similar sentiments about creating such a two-tiered system. The Senate president said she knows lots of young people who go to school on a full-time basis who are supporting families and sees no reason why employers should be able to pay them less.

A previous version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Chris Kleminich’s last name.

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