Colorado Bill Tries Again to Give Cities Minimum Wage Power

The Colorado Capitol in Denver (Photo by Hustvedt)

“Poverty is moving out of Denver proper and moving into our suburban areas,” Eva Henry says.

Henry, a commissioner in Adams County, which is adjacent to Denver, has been a local elected official for nearly 11 years. She says that during her campaigns, she has knocked on more than 19,000 doors. “Some of those doors just kind of stick out in your mind,” she says. “When I first ran, I remember knocking on this one door. They were a couple. It was 2007. They both worked. They both had really good jobs. When I went back four years later when I was running for re-election, one of them had lost their job. They were looking at losing their home.” When Henry was campaigning in 2016, she says she found the couple both had jobs — but they paid minimum wage.

“They couldn’t afford to put their kids into any sports activities,” Henry recalls. “They couldn’t go to parent-teacher conferences because they were just working to make ends meet.”

Between 2000 and 2015, housing costs increased and the number of high-poverty neighborhoods tripled in the Denver metro area. According to the same report on suburban poverty by Apartment List, there was a 500 percent increase in the number of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. As of January 1, Colorado state minimum wage is $11.10 an hour for non-tipped employees. That is up from 2016’s $8.31 and will go to $12 in 2020, thanks to a 2016 voter-approved increase. Henry believes an even higher minimum wage would be helpful, but state law prohibits local governments from setting their own minimum wage above the state level. However, a state bill could overturn this prohibition. In early March, the Colorado house passed the bill, moving it on to the senate, which has nixed previous versions of the proposal.

The bill represents a notable divergence from a national trend of state laws preempting local control and limiting the powers of local government. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), Colorado is one of 25 states with this kind of preemptive bar on minimum wage hikes. Blocking local decision-making in this way means the level of government closest to the people ends up gutted of power, according to Kim Haddow of the Local Solutions Support Center (LSSC).

“If you look at all three levels of government, there is … the most trust with local government,” Haddow says. Running into local elected officials at the grocery store, in church and at Little League games helps people feel “you understand where we live. You share our values. You get what we need here,” Haddow says.

Yet, a 2018 LSSC survey found that 59 percent of those polled supported state bills that overrode local legislation. In answer to another question, 43 percent felt that such overriding had a negative impact on them, and 38 percent said state-level preemption didn’t affect them at all.

LSSC’s position is that such preemption hinders working toward equality. The group’s primer on preemption says: “The increasing use of preemption threatens to perpetuate racial and economic inequality, limit local anti-discrimination efforts, and systematically strip local governments of their power to regulate and set health, safety and economic standards.”

Lori Riverstone-Newell, a professor at Illinois State University who has studied preemption, points out that when states take away local powers like this it’s often done by conservative legislators seeking to “limit local choices that deal with any kind of progressive social policy or any kind of progressive social actions that might affect the larger economy. And by that I mean preemptions that say you can’t use plastic shopping bags.”

“It’s extremely costly for us as a nation. We’ve used our localities to come up with all sorts of policy solutions in the past, some of which the states have adopted,” Riverstone-Newell says. “Anti-smoking provisions started at the local level. We can tell if [a policy is] going to be cost-effective on a local level, and we can see what the political backlash is going to be. So, that saves the state and state leaders tons of money and pain.”

Big business often comes out against minimum wage increase proposals. The Denver Chamber of Commerce opposes the Colorado bill that would give municipalities more freedom to set their minimum wages.

Meanwhile, Laura Huizar of NELP believes wage increases benefit local economies: “When workers receive higher wages, they are very likely to spend those wages in the local community, so it has a multiplier effect of sorts where they’re spending money and pumping money into their local economy, which benefits everyone.”

Henry says she’ll continue to be a vocal supporter of the Colorado state bill. “I think the people who live here understand what our communities need,” she says. “We need to give the average blue-collar, middle-class people more of an advantage, as opposed to the large corporations.”

Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.

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