JACK SPENCER: Minimum wage issue, a battle of gimmicks

Following the saga of the minimum wage hike proposal in Michigan has become a study in misdirection, miscalculation and thinly disguised motives.

The latest turn of events is legislation introduced by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, which is designed to knock the proposal off the November ballot. This legislation (SB 934) would get rid of Michigan’s current minimum wage statute and replace it with a new one. Incidentally, it would also increase the minimum wage to $8.15 per hour and add 28 cents to the hourly wage of tipped employees, but those aspects of SB 934 are just window dressing.

The point is that when SB 934 gets rid of the current statute, the wording on the petitions currently being circulated to put the minimum wage hike proposal on the ballot would become null and void. In other words, if SB 934 is passed and signed into law, the minimum wage hike proposal won’t qualify for the ballot.

Unless those backing the proposal can figure out a way around the SB 934 roadblock, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled legislature have the power to decide whether the proposal gets on the ballot or not — and they don’t want it on the ballot.

Yes, Richardville’s legislation can justifiably be described as an election-year gimmick. However, it is also an example of turnabout being fair play. That’s because the minimum wage hike proposal itself has been no more than an election-year gimmick all along.

The proposal would increase Michigan’s minimum wage from $7.40 an hour to $10.10. It would also eliminate the distinction between tipped employees and those who work for a flat wage. Over a period of years it would increase labor costs by 280 percent.

When asked who would be hurt most by the proposal, polling shows that 75 percent of Michigan voters know the answer. Of course, as always, it would be the little guys.

To the big multi-national chains, the wage hike would be a maddening inconvenience. But to many small, local, and unique restaurants and other businesses that don’t have deep pockets it would be devastating. Meanwhile, the young, the inexperienced and the unskilled would be priced out of jobs.

Ironically, most voters who might have been expected to support the proposal probably wouldn’t realize its unintended consequences. Its passage would likely lead to the large chains becoming more dominant than they already are, while actually harming a lot of low income workers.

Differences of opinion on issues should be decided by the voters, not by political gimmicks. But the minimum wage proposal was never really about a difference of opinion on a minimum wage hike. It has always been about trying to create an issue for the Democrats in what, for them, could otherwise be a bleak 2014 election year.

In the sixth year of an administration, the party that holds the White House often suffers setbacks at the ballot box. Add to that the impact of Obamacare and this year could potentially be dismal for Democrats. Voters who tend to support Republicans are angry about Obamacare and will be likely to turnout in large numbers. This is a real problem for Democrats because there are indications that a significant portion of voters who tend to lean their way are ambivalent and less likely to turnout.

None of these presumptions are written in stone. In the end, 2014 might not be such a bad year for the Democrats at all, but they have plenty of reasons to fear the worst. So they came up with a national push for a minimum wage hike, hoping it would activate their base and boost Democratic turnout.

That was the plan, but so far it doesn’t seem to be working in Michigan.

The proposal hasn’t stirred much enthusiasm and, according to projections, it would have only a minor effect on turnout. The drive to get the signatures needed to put the proposal on the statewide ballot has been sluggish. That’s understandable, considering its main purpose — to boost Democratic turnout — now looks like it won’t be accomplished. In addition, it’s rumored that key Democratic business interests object to the wage increase.

Nonetheless, the Republicans still see the proposal as a threat and are willing to take special measures to kill it. Here’s why: first, if the proposal were on the ballot, it could be very expensive for the state’s business community (which is mostly allied with the Republicans) to defeat. Second but possibly of greater importance, there is always the possibility that any proposal on the ballot might pass. SB 934 shows that the Republicans are unwilling to risk either of these outcomes.