Democrats again push for local control over the minimum wage

This story was updated on May 3 to state that the bill was killed in Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs by a 3-2 party-line vote. 

A person earning Colorado’s minimum wage — $10.20 per hour as of January this year — would have to work more than 100 hours to afford the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Denver. Put another way, more than 60 percent of that person’s monthly income would go to rent.

The rising cost of living in the Mile High City is one reason why Democratic lawmakers are pushing to allow towns, cities and counties in Colorado to set their own minimum wages.

In 2016, voters approved a minimum wage increase that will reach $12 per hour in 2020. That same year, a report by the Colorado Housing and Financing Authority found that nearly half of Colorado renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than a third of their income on rent.

“We’ve seen the costs of virtually everything increase,” Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, a lead sponsor on the proposed legislation, told The Colorado Independent.

Moreno says the current minimum wage won’t be enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in Colorado.

“Those folks on the lowest tier of the compensation schedule are really having trouble keeping up. People are cobbling together multiple low wage jobs to make ends meet,” he said.

Corletta Hithon, a homecare provider in Aurora, says is working two jobs and still cannot afford a place to live. She says she has fibromyalgia, which means she can’t work more than 22 hours per week. One job pays $10.50 per hour and the other $15 per hour.

“I’m sleeping on somebody’s couch,” Hithon said. “As a Colorado resident, I believe they need to help the working poor. They need to help the people who struggle.

The proposed law would have repealed a 1999 provision in state law that bars local governments from setting their own minimum wage.

Across the country, over two dozen states have similar preemption laws on the books, according to National Conference of State Legislatures. But this year, state legislatures in Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York and Ohio have introduced legislation to overturn these minimum wage preemption laws.

The House passed the bill 36-29 along party lines on Thursday. But the bill was killed in Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs by a 3-2 party-line vote. The committee is controlled by Republicans, who killed a similar bill to repeal the preemption in 2016.

Still, Moreno said he hoped the argument of local control will win the day.

It’s didn’t. Republican lawmakers said this will increase costs of doing businesses in Colorado — forcing employers to hire fewer workers or jack up prices.

‘I think it’s economic distortion,” Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs. Gardner is the vice chair of the Local Government Committee, which will likely take up the bill if it makes it through the House.

“If the city and county of Denver want to do that, more power to them. Would I pass enabling legislation to allow them to do that? No. Because I don’t think it’s good for the state overall to start having a patchwork of minimum wages.”

Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, made a similar argument against the bill. She said it may create a competitive disadvantage for businesses in different jurisdictions that are separated by a street.

Because of Colorado current minimum wage increase, she said restaurants are already having to cut costs — including reducing staff hours and hiring fewer people — and increase menu prices. And the workers that stick around, she said, are often asked to do more work for their time.

The state’s hot economy has led to job growth in the restaurant industry in recent years; Colorado’s restaurant industry is again projected to reach sales of $12 billion in 2018, which is a 40 percent increase in restaurant sales since 2010, according to a report by University of Colorado Boulder. But many of these restaurants operate on thin profit margins between three to six percent. Wage increases, the report states, require that they cut costs or increase prices.

“The effect on job seekers is simple,” Riggs said. “They will be expected to take on more job duties than they have in the past.”

Theoretically, this should be the case, said Rich Jones, the director of policy and research at the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning Denver-based think tank. 

But what research shows, he said, is that businesses are saving money on worker retention and experience.

“So, in essence, you’re getting more work and higher quality work out of them,” Jones said. “They’re able to accommodate that in their business model by saving on turnover and saving on productivity.”

Title photo: Denver protester. Photo by Allen Tian