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Public Vote On $15 Minimum Wage In D.C. Remains In Legal Limbo

Social justice and labor groups across the country have been pushing cities and states to adopt a $15 minimum wage.
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Social justice and labor groups across the country have been pushing cities and states to adopt a $15 minimum wage.

An effort to have D.C. residents vote on whether the city should raise its minimum wage to $15 remained in legal limbo after a court hearing Thursday, eating up time proponents need to collect the necessary signatures to get the measure on the November ballot.

At the hearing, Judge Maurice Ross continued weighing arguments over a lawsuit filed last year by business leaders looking to keep the measure from getting on the ballot. At issue is whether the D.C. Board of Elections properly approved language for the ballot initiative last year.

In late January, Ross said it had not, because its members were serving under expired terms. But after multiple rounds of additional briefings and motions, on Thursday he heard more arguments from both sides on the issue, but did not issue a ruling — nor give a hint on when he would.

"I cannot give you any timeframe on a decision," he said. "March is a very busy month."

That uncertainty could have an impact on the proponents of the ballot initiative, because if they want to get the measure on November's ballot, they'd have to collect and submit upwards of 22,000 valid signatures from D.C. voters by early July.

Delvone Michael, of D.C. Working Families, one of the group's pushing the vote, said he thinks that they'd be able to collect all the signatures they need — even on a shortened timeframe.

"We've got the best canvassers in the world," he said.

He may have good reason to be optimistic: One of the members of the team charged with gathering signatures is Adam Eidinger, who from April to July 2014 led the effort to collect more than 57,000 signatures to place a marijuana legalization question on the November ballot. The campaign will also have the financial backing of David Bronner, the owner of a California-based organic soap company Dr. Bronner's, who also helped bankroll the marijuana legalization effort.

Judge Ross also said that proponents had a second option to pursue: They can refile the ballot initiative with the Board of Elections, which will soon have two members serving under new three-year terms. That would resolve the problem that's currently at the heart of the legal limbo the measure is stuck in.

"We'll probably end up refilling once they confirm the new guy to the Board of Elections," said Michael. "Hopefully this [ruling] will come back before that all happens. We're moving forward."

As written, the measure would increase the city's minimum wage to $15 by 2020. (It is currently $10.50, and will go up to $11.50 in July.) It would also do away with the city's tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers, and instead incrementally raise their minimum wage until it hits $15 in 2024.

Proponents say that raising the minimum wage would help chip away at the high levels of inequality in the nation's capital. Earlier this week, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute published a report saying that in 2014 the average income of the top 5 percent of D.C. earners was 52 times the income of the bottom 20 percent.

But business leaders worry that increasing the minimum wage beyond the $11.50 it will reach this July — it's currently $10.50 — would increase operating costs for D.C. businesses, forcing them to cut hiring or leave the city. The minimum wage in Montgomery and Prince George's counties is going up to $11.50, but Virginia has kept to the federal level — $7.25 an hour.

In January, the American Enterprise Institute published a study where it concluded that the city's minimum wage hikes have eaten into hiring by restaurants.

If the $15 minimum wage gets on the November ballot, it faces good prospects: A January poll by the Washington City Paper found that 87 percent voters support the wage hike.

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