Homestretch: The fight to raise Colorado’s minimum wage

How we got here. What could happen. And what it means.

Homestretch: The fight to raise Colorado’s minimum wage

Voters at polling centers across Colorado will soon be deciding on Amendment 70, a measure that would alter the state constitution to increase the minimum wage from the current $8.31 per hour by yearly 90-cent increments to $12 in 2020. In 2020, it will be fixed at $12, except for yearly adjustments to account for inflation. Amendment 70 would further mandate that those inflation-tied adjustments only apply when they mean an increase in wages. In the past, when inflation was negative, minimum wage workers saw a pay cut.

Who’s behind it?

Supporters of the increase coalesced in mid-2016 into a group called Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, a coalition of unions, economic justice advocates and progressive policy analysts. Many of them had been part of an informal consortium of anti-poverty groups called The Everyone Economy that came together to strategize about raising the minimum wage back in February 2014. Partnering with Democratic legislators, they advocated for a pair of bills in the 2015 legislative session to help low-wage workers. One would have allowed municipalities to set their own minimums, and the other would have created a ballot measure to reach a $12.50 per hour minimum by 2020. Republicans killed both bills in the Senate.

Democrats floated another bill in 2016 to allow cities to set their own minimum wages, which met the same fate as its predecessors. After that, Everyone Economy members decided they had no recourse but to pursue a ballot measure themselves and formed Colorado Families for a Fair Wage.

Why $12 per hour and not $15?

The amendment’s proponents faced criticism for their decision to pursue $12 instead of $15 per hour in this week’s Westword cover story. According to the story, some former members of the coalition’s steering committee expressed deep dissatisfaction with its decision to pursue a $12 wage, arguing that, in doing so, the coalition shut out those whose voices were most pertinent to the effort — namely, dues-paying union members. They further take issue with the coalition’s failure to conduct focus groups composed of African-American working people, the demographic that would most benefit from a wage increase. CFFW spokesman Mike Kromrey now admits that was a mistake.

In its decision, the campaign relied on polling that showed that $12 per hour was more likely to pass. Campaign spokesman Timothy Markham dismissed any suggestion that the Westword story would affect the election outcome. “It might make for interesting gossip, but it doesn’t change the fundamental facts of the struggles Colorado workers are facing,” he said.

Interestingly, CFFW’s opponents on the right appropriated some of those far-left criticisms in the article and applied them to their own pitch. Keep Colorado Working, a conglomeration of chambers of commerce, industry groups and free-market business advocates that came together to oppose Amendment 70, sent a press release on Wednesday drawing attention to Westword’s report and castigating CFFW for deciding on their ballot language based on “polling, not policy impacts.”

The release does not mention the fact that those reports came from former CFFW members who wanted the minimum wage increase to be greater, not smaller, as Keep Colorado Working does.

How much firepower is against it?

Keep Colorado Working had a slower start raising funds, but has now raised $1.7 million. It has spent just under $1.4 million as of the most recent campaign finance filings, primarily on television advertising and consultants. About half of its funds ($650,000) come from the Alexandria, Virginia-based Workforce Fairness Institute. It has also gotten $525,000 from Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution, a committee that has donated hefty sums to pro-fracking campaigns and to a 2013 effort to recall legislators who had passed gun-control legislation.

For its part, CCFW has outraised its rivals almost 3 to 1, raising about $5.3 million in donations, much of which is from out-of-state groups like its largest donor, the Center for Popular Democracy, which has kicked in over $1 million. Its second-largest donor is the Palo Alto-based Fairness Project, which has contributed over $960,000 to CFFW and is also supporting minimum wage ballot measures in Maine, Arizona and Washington, D.C.

Keep Colorado Working wants to make sure you know that some of CFFW’s donors are not from Colorado. Virtually all of its communications use the terms “wealthy out of state special interests” liberally.

According to the most recent campaign finance filings, CFFW has spent $4.6 million  on television and digital advertising, outreach efforts like canvassing and hosting events, mailers, polling and research.

Keep Colorado Working did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story’s deadline.

Will it pass?

Early polls indicate that it will.

An August Magellan Strategies poll of 500 likely Colorado voters showed that 55 percent of respondents supported the measure, 42 percent were opposed and three percent were undecided. A September joint project between Colorado Mesa University, Rocky Mountain PBS and Franklin & Marshall College showed that 58 percent of respondents favored Amendment 70, with 36 percent opposed and seven percent undecided.

CFFW is also conducting its own internal polls and told The Independent that it is consistently getting positive results. Colorado politics expert Eric Sondermann also predicted that it will narrowly pass in a comprehensive ballot prediction for Westword.

CFFW’s case was buoyed in the fall months, starting with the release of a University of Denver study that tied Amendment 70 to a $400 million increase in state GDP. The logic is straightforward: when low-wage workers get a raise, they are very likely to spend it in their local economies, rather than filing it away. Not long after, Governor Hickenlooper endorsed the amendment, tethering worker pay raises to a boost for the overall economy.

Keep Colorado Working countered with another study, commissioned by the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, which concludes that the increase would lead to a decline in income and massive layoffs. But critics say that CSPR’s ties to groups like EIS Solutions, a PR outfit with several oil and gas clients, and Americans for Prosperity, the oil and gas giant Koch brothers’ political arm, undermine the study’s integrity.

Proponents are feeling optimistic as they buckle down for the the pre-election weekend. Andy Jacob, political director for SEIU Local 105, which is CFFW member, said that the group will spend the weekend making phone calls, knocking on doors, communicating with members and “doing everything we can to get this passed.”

If it passes, will it really be a game-changer for workers?

Whether Amendment 70 passes or fails, the work is just beginning for Colorado labor unions and low-wage worker advocates. Most CFFW members acknowledge that $12 per hour is not in fact a living wage for workers with families in some parts of Colorado. Most estimates put a living wage for a single parent of two children in Denver at around $30 per hour. But advocates also believe that the current $8.31 per hour is inexcusable, and any more than $12 is not politically viable.  

There’s a sense of immediacy among CFFW members. One hears the term “right now” a lot. They would rather take a safe bet than a real gamble when so many people’s livelihoods hang in the balance.

“Do we go with something that we know is going to be tough but that we know we can win on, or do we go with 15, which the Denver area might be ready for but the state isn’t, and we lose?” SEIU’s Jacob asked.

He works with low-wage union members every day and he believes he’s doing right by them. “‘12 by 2020’ will impact half a million people in Colorado,” Jacob said. “Don’t tell those people this isn’t going to help them. It is.”

 

Photo Credit: Pictures of Money, Creative Commons, Flickr

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Eliza Carter

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