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Michigan Supreme Court denies minimum wage initiative ballot access

Extra wide exterior shot of state Supreme Court building.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

A ballot question to raise Michigan’s minimum wage to $15 per hour won’t go before voters this fall.

That’s after the Michigan Supreme Court Friday refused to order the Board of State Canvassers to certify the measure for the ballot.

The issue came before the court after the board deadlocked on the issue this past fall. Board members couldn’t agree whether a change made to the measure made summary language that appeared at the top of the petition inaccurate.

The board had approved the summary language before the effort began signature collection.

It read: “Initiation of legislation amending Improved Workforce Opportunity Wage Act, 2018 PA 337, MCL 408.932 and 408.934, and adding MCL 408.934e, to: increase minimum wage to $11/hour in 2023, $12 in 2024, $13 in 2025, $14 in 2026, and $15 in 2027, regardless of unemployment rate; in following years, increase minimum wage based on inflation rate for urban wage-earners (CPI-W); adjust over 6 years the minimum employer-paid portion of pay for workers receiving tips until it matches minimum wage for all employees; provide that employees keep tips unless they agree to share them with other non-manager employees; remove state authority to approve lower minimum wage based on determination that minor, apprentice or disability status reduces productivity.”

But Raise the Wage MI, the campaign behind the effort, tweaked the petition from when that summary language was approved before it began collecting signatures. The change made it so the new minimum wage would only apply to businesses with at least 21 employees.

Republican board member Tony Daunt said he believes the court made the right choice Friday.

“The printed materials changed from the time we said, ‘Yep, this is good to go,’ to then when they started circulating it. It dramatically changed the impact of the legislation,” Daunt told reporters.

But officials with the campaign disagree with that characterization. Justin Onwenu is the Raise the Wage MI treasurer and leads Michigan efforts for the group One Fair Wage.

“It’s our position that the language that was included was fully accurate with what the law would have done. It would’ve raised wages for millions of Michiganders. So, we disagree with the decision,” Onwenu said. “We're going to keep on fighting.”

A 2022 press release from the governor’s office cited data claiming small businesses in the state, classified as fewer than 500 employees, provided jobs to around 1.9 million workers. That meant over half of the state’s workforce worked for larger companies.

Now that the Supreme Court has shot down any chance of the minimum wage question appearing on the November ballot without legislative action, eyes are turning to a separate lawsuit that also seeks to raise the minimum wage.

That case, argued in December, has yet to be decided. But it could lead to Michigan’s minimum wage jumping from $10.33 an hour for non-tipped workers and $3.93 for tipped employees to over $13 an hour, regardless of tipped status.

John Sellek is spokesperson for the coalition of businesses and service industry workers, Michigan Opportunity. He said a win for One Fair Wage in that case could have a dire impact on businesses in the state.

“The minimum wage is going to change overnight. The ability of tipped workers, like servers and bartenders, to earn those big tips, which is the reason they took those jobs, that’s all going to go out the window. And the income of these servers is going to drop,” Sellek said.

He suggested lawmakers step in to smooth out the impact of the decision, should the court side in favor of raising minimum wage.

But Onwenu accuses opponents of raising the minimum wage of using scare tactics.

“There’s data that shows that for tipped workers, in particular, who are facing high levels of sexual harassment, high levels of poverty, for Michigan workers in general who are living on $10 and change, that minimum wage is not keeping up,” Onwenu said.

He said his group is waiting to see what the court rules before deciding the next steps for the cause if justices side against raising the minimum wage.