LANSING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate passed bills Wednesday that would substantially scale back citizen-initiated minimum wage and paid sick leave laws that a business lobby criticized as too burdensome, setting up expected lawsuits if GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signs them into law before making way for a Democrat in January.
The Senate voted 26-12, almost entirely along party lines, to advance the two bills to the Republican-controlled House, which is expected to pass them and could vote as early as next week.
One measure would delay increasing the minimum wage to $12 an hour to at least 2030, instead of 2022. It would also repeal provisions to tie future increases to inflation and bring a lower wage for tipped employees in line with the wage for other workers. The current minimum wage is $9.25.
Another bill would exempt employers with fewer than 50 employees from having to provide paid sick time as required under the existing law that is scheduled to take effect in March, limit the amount of annual mandatory leave at larger businesses to 36 hours, instead of 72 hours, and make other changes.
Both measures represent big changes from the language circulated and signed by enough people to get it on the ballot, or in this case, before the Legislature.
To prevent the citizen initiatives from going to electorate earlier this month, where they would be much harder to change if voters had passed them, GOP legislators preemptively approved them in September so that they could alter them after the election with simple majority votes in each chamber.
“The voters know when they sign a petition that it comes before the Legislature before anything happened to it. That we vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or do nothing with it. The process has always been in place,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of Grand Haven, who supported the substitutes.
But Democrats say it violates the will of the people and is not in the spirit of the petition passed.
“The idea that we’re going to go around the people to lower wages and to frankly make paid sick time much harder in Michigan I think is wrong,” said Senate Democratic Whip Curtis Hertel Jr.
Since the approval of the 1963 state constitution, lawmakers have adopted seven citizen initiatives but amended just one — and it was not in the same legislative session and came in response to a court ruling. Democrats and organizers of the ballot drives said making the changes this year, before Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer takes office, would be illegal.
“Gutting the One Fair Wage proposal after it was adopted is blatantly unconstitutional and will likely will lead to costly, time-consuming court challenges,” said Pete Vargas, campaign manager for the minimum wage ballot drive.
But Meekhof said the constitution does not prohibit lawmakers from amending the laws.
“We are doing what we believe is the best to keep Michigan’s economic engine going, providing a way for employers (and) employees to make their agreements together,” he said.
The minimum wage is scheduled to rise to $10 in 2019, $10.65 in 2020, $11.35 in 2021 and $12 in 2022, with yearly inflationary adjustments afterward. Under the legislation, the wage would increase to $9.48 in 2019 and by 23 cents annually until it hits $12 in 2030 — later if the unemployment rate is 8.5 percent or higher.
Proposed changes to the sick law include removing a provision that would let workers get paid time off to care for or help any individual related by “affinity” to the employee and whose close relationship is the equivalent of a family relationship.
Business groups applauded the Senate’s moves, saying Michigan would be an outlier in the Midwest and its economic competitiveness would be jeopardized without the revisions. Charlie Owens, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, estimated that Michigan’s “sloppily worded” current law would cost employers three times more than those in California, which also has sick time requirements.
Hertel, an East Lansing Democrat, criticized Republicans for not introducing the bills until two days after the election and accused them of purposely keeping voters in the dark. He said he would be open to considering changes during the 2019-20 legislative session after hearing from tipped servers who worry that the wage law could actually reduce their pay.
“The idea that for the sake of political gamesmanship, for the sake of getting what we want, for the sake of undoing the will of the people and ignoring their voice, that we are going to sit in this building and undo 50 years of precedence, take away the democratic rights that were guaranteed in the Michigan Constitution and pretend like we are the all-powerful and not the people is unacceptable,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest impediment for the changes to become law is if the Legislature fails to raise fees on dumping trash, which Gov. Rick Snyder wants to support his environmental priorities.
When asked if passing any legislation would be possible without approving the fee hike, Meekhof said only time will tell.
“We know what the governor wants and he knows what we want and this is the part of ‘lame duck’ that is always changing,” said Meekhof.
Snyder has not indicated whether he supports or opposes the measures.
“If the bills are sent to his desk, he will review them to determine the potential benefits or negative impacts and then make a decision on whether to sign them,” said spokesman Ari Adler.
This final legislative session for 21 Republicans is scheduled to run through at least Dec. 13, with another tentative week scheduled until Dec. 20.