Voters in McCall were wise on Tuesday to reject a minimum wage increase. But the fight on this issue isn’t over yet. Advocates for this absurd policy are likely to keep pressing local governments—or their voters—to say yes. Eventually, there will be some kind of piecemeal win, unless lawmakers put a stop to the madness.
The McCall measure fell 53 to 47 percent, and that was astonishing. Some of my friends in the community thought that too many local business owners, who would have been stuck with the bill, lived outside city limits. The McCall proposal called for an eventual 41 percent increase in the minimum wage, to $10.25 an hour, maybe that gave voters pause. Or perhaps they were taken aback by the regulatory powers McCall city government would have been granted to enforce the proposal.
Or maybe voters figured out that minimum wage increases aren’t the panacea their protagonists pretend them to be. For example, in Seattle the minimum wage is being phased upward to $15 an hour; there, the Washington Policy Center recently noted, the city is losing restaurant jobs -- while the rest of the state is gaining them. Predictably, some business owners look to replace employees with automation.
Cities and other local governments in Idaho shouldn’t be setting their own minimum wages at all. (I’d argue, governments generally do more harm than good when they set wage minimums or maximums, but that’s a discussion for another day). State law happens to set a minimum wage, which defaults to the federal minimum wage whenever the latter is more. But the state statute isn’t clear whether local governments are forbidden from imposing their own wage laws. A recent attorney general’s letter offered that a court could void a locally-passed minimum wage ordinance. On the other hand, the letter said, a court might uphold it.
This ambiguity requires legislative action. I’m certain some lawmakers will be reluctant to act, because they favor “local control.” But local control shouldn’t allow cities, counties or other jurisdictions to tell businesses what to pay their employees. Indeed, if a town like Ammon sets its own minimum wage, it will undoubtedly have an impact on neighboring Idaho Falls, just as a move by Coeur d’Alene would impact nearby Post Falls; a Boise wage increase would be felt in Meridian, and so on. In other words, cities would impose their economic values on jurisdictions over which they should have no authority.
Legislators should also understand, if they support “local control,” the most local form of control is the one exercised by an entrepreneur who makes a choice each and every day about how much to pay his or her employees. That employer makes the decision based on a number of factors, including the skills needed for a particular job, competition for employees, and the experience level of a worker. Those are decisions politicians should not make. If lawmakers really do support local control, they should work this winter to make certain business owners are allowed to keep it.