Group: Minimum wage battle not over

Organizers failed to meet May 1 signatures deadline to get initiative on ballot

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COEUR d'ALENE - Voters in Coeur d'Alene won't decide if the city should boost the minimum wage, but the city itself might.

A group - spearheaded by former legislative candidate Anne Nesse and Bob Bennett, former North Idaho College president - failed to meet a May 1 deadline to provide the necessary signatures for a minimum wage increase initiative to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. Nesse told The Press Tuesday that her group is now exploring other options such as a municipal ordinance.

"It's not dead and it'll never be dead," Nesse said of their efforts to increase the minimum wage.

City Clerk Renata McLeod told The Press Tuesday that the city code would have given the group a longer amount of time to gather the needed 1,681 signatures. State code, which supersedes codes established by cities, only gave the group until May 1.

The initiative would have required employers in the city of Coeur d'Alene to pay their employees at least $8.75 an hour beginning Jan. 1, 2016. Minimum wages would be increased to $10.25 an hour the following year, and the initiative included language for additional, annual raises based on the Consumer Price Index for the western region.

The current minimum wage is $7.25.

Under the initiative, tipped workers such as waiters and bartenders would earn 75 percent of the wages that hourly employees receive, which doubles the $3.35 minimum at the state level.

In April, City Attorney Warren Wilson provided Nesse's group with a "Certificate of Review" containing his legal opinion on the initiative. In the letter, Wilson wrote that state code requires Idaho to "conform and track" with the federal minimum wage.

That code would conflict with Coeur d'Alene raising the minimum wage within city limits, he wrote. Wilson added that the city does not have the standing to win any legal challenge if such an initiative was passed.

"Neither the Idaho Constitution nor the Idaho code contains a direct grant of authority to municipalities to regulate the minimum wage within their boundaries," Wilson wrote.

However, Nesse argued that the requirement to "conform and track" with federal minimum wage does not mean that a city can't rise above it.

"They're trying to silence us," Nesse said. "Nobody is dealing with this issue and you can't keep passing the buck on it."

Instead of waiting for the winter of 2016, when her group could begin another push for a ballot initiative, she said she'll ask the council to adopt a municipal ordinance that would set the minimum wage according to what was established in the draft initiative.

"It's an important enough issue that it would be very bad for this community economically if they let it die now," Nesse said.

Nesse added that she will also ask the council to place the issue on the November ballot as an "advisory vote to the community," which would gauge the public's support for an increase prior to a council vote. She plans on presenting the plan to city officials next month.

If the city receives Nesse's presentation with enough time to prepare staff reports, McLeod said the proposal could be heard by the General Services Committee at the beginning of June.

She added that the city of McCall is set to vote on a similar minimum wage initiative in November. Any rulings made in court stating Idaho cities such as McCall cannot establish a higher minimum wage would make the meeting between Nesse and the city unnecessary, McLeod said.

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