Slay defends St. Louis minimum wage increase in house committee

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay testifies in opposition to a bill that would invalidate the city's minimum wage increase March 6, 2017. (Travis Zimpfer/MISSOURI TIMES)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay testified alongside several St. Louisans to oppose a measure explicitly designed to prevent the city’s minimum wage raise ordinance, approved last week by the Missouri Supreme Court, from going into effect. He waited alongside many of his constituents until 8 p.m. to testify before the House Rules – Administrative Oversight Committee.

The bills were combined and passed through committee easily 10-4 on party lines with Republicans favoring the bill.

Just a day after a major 6-0 Supreme Court decision invalidated two laws that barred municipal minimum wages from exceeding the state’s own wage for violating the Hammerschmidt principle, Rep. Dan Shaul and Rep. Jason Chipman introduced legislation which they believe will pass the court’s muster.

Less than a week after what many in St. Louis, including Slay, perceived as a victory on the issue has turned into a nightmare. The legislation has been fast-tracked by House leadership and, at its current rate, could easily leave the lower chamber by the end of the week. Slay urged the committee to reconsider their stance, speaking on the positive impact the minimum raise increase would have on the economy.

“There are 69,000 workers in St. Louis who support families who are making less than $11 per hour,” Slay said. “This raise will generate about $100 million in economic activity in Missouri.”

Slay added the raise would help reduce poverty by providing more money for those who earn the least. Missouri’s current minimum wage is $7.70 per hour, just 45 cents higher than the national minimum wage rate. The city ordinance would raise that in St. Louis to $11 by 2018. The increase was meant to be more gradual, but the litigation blocked the law from going into effect for the first year and a half of the phase-in.

Republican members of the committee countered the increase would hurt small business owners the most and that the wage increase would obviously not help those who do not currently have jobs.

Rep. Dan Shaul presents his bill to limit the minimum wage of municipalities to the state rate March 6,, 2017 (Travis Zimpfer/THE MISSOURI TIMES).

Rep. Dan Shaul presents his bill to limit the minimum wage of municipalities to the state rate March 6, 2017 (Travis Zimpfer/THE MISSOURI TIMES).

“If they could get an $11 or $15 an hour job, it probably would work, but until then they have to live on the means they have,” Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said. “You’ll have people laid off and fired and that will not do them any good.”

In his own inquiries of the bill sponsors, Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City, questioned if then how states with the highest minimum wages had the lowest unemployment rates and vice versa.

At times, testimony got flat-out contentious between Slay and some members of the committee. One particular exchange occurred after Slay had an exchange with Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Kearney, over the effect of labor wages on the relocation of jobs with some crosstalk.

“Mr. Mayor, this is the thing, and I can probably do this only because I’m from Kansas City, not from your area,” Berry said. “But I’m inquiring, you can answer, and we’ll do that this way,”

That touched a nerve in Slay.

“Any other instructions?” he asked.

“Do I need to give more instructions?” Berry responded.

“I don’t know, do you?” Slay said.

After another round of crosstalk between the two, Slay questioned why this bill had taken up so much of the legislature’s time so soon after last week’s Supreme Court decision.

“What kind of influence is undertaking this body to get this far this quickly on something so important that impacts so many people’s lives, and I’m here defending them and I don’t know who you’re defending,” Slay said to Berry.

One of those people was Betty Douglas, a 10-year McDonald’s employee and Fight for $15 advocate. She detailed her own struggles with poverty, choosing between paying bills or eating towards the end of the month and providing resources for her special needs son, on top of her inability to find a better-paying job despite having worked in law offices and other places before her tenure at the fast-food company.

However, not all St. Louisans who testified said they would be happy with the wage increase. Several small business owners, mainly restaurant and retail business owners, testified their budgets would not be able to withstand an increase in labor costs to $11 per hour and it could force them to fold their businesses.

For Rep. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, it came down to a matter of local control. Kansas City was ordered by the Missouri Supreme Court in another 6-0 decision in January to place a minimum wage hike on the ballot.

“If voters say the wage should be raised, what would you say to the voters?” Arthur asked Shaul. “What I hear is we don’t trust you to make decisions for yourself.”

After the hearing, Slay said he found the entire situation “baffling.”

“Just a couple of years ago, they had a law that allowed St. Louis to increase the minimum wage, it was contested in court the judge ruled in the city’s favor, and now just a couple of days on the heels of that court opinion there’s already a committee hearing to nullify the law, one that so many St. Louisans have been waiting for and working towards.”

Speaker Todd Richardson declined to comment on the bills’ passage through the House earlier in the day.

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