Supreme Court upholds minimum wage law

Chief Justice Scott Bales

By | Ben Giles | Arizona Capitol Times

The Arizona Supreme Court has unanimously ruled against a challenge to a voter-approved hike in the state’s minimum wage.

The justices rejected arguments by a group of plaintiffs, led by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, that Proposition 206 led to an unconstitutional mandate for the government to spend money. Attorneys for the chamber argued that expenses caused by Prop. 206, which raised the minimum wage to $10 per hour on January 1, violated the Arizona Constitution’s revenue-source rule.

Adopted in 2004, the rule requires ballot initiatives to identify funding sources for any new government spending.

Chief Justice Scott Bales announced the ruling in a brief order released Tuesday afternoon. A lengthier written opinion will be released at a later date.

Bales and other justices were skeptical of oral arguments made by Brett Johnson, an attorney for the chamber, during a hearing on March 9. Some justices wondered if it would be nearly impossible for a citizen-driven initiative to pass a constitutional test when even indirect expenses were a sufficient cause to violate the revenue source rule.

Justice Ann Scott Timmer, for example, asked if a requirement to send even one simple letter qualifies as an increase in spending under the revenue source rule.

Jim Barton, an attorney for Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families, the committee that placed the minimum wage hike on the ballot, said the ruling is a victory for Arizonans who will now get to keep the higher wage they have begun earning since January 1.

“You saw that some of the justices were questioning me very hard. They were questioning the assistant Attorney General very hard, and maybe they disagreed with the substance of the law, but the Arizona Supreme Court did what they always do. The ruled that the law means what it says,” Barton said.

The justices’ full written opinion may even have some implications for the initiative process in the future, Barton said.

“In order to know the impact that the ruling will have on the initiative process, we’ll have to wait for the opinion,” he continued. “What we do know is that the citizens of Arizona who put this on the ballot, they won today.”

Attorney General Marc Brnovich, whose office defended the law while other state agencies sent mixed signals, applauded the court’s ruling.

“As Attorney General, my job is to uphold the rule of law,” Brnovich said in a news release. “The constitution is designed to protect our rights. It’s not a tool to be used to undermine the will of the people.”

Glenn Hamer, the chamber’s president and CEO, acknowledged defeat in a statement.

“While we’re disappointed that the result did not go our way, we respect the Court’s ruling,” he said. “Lawmakers and the governor can now craft a state budget that considers the law’s impact on state revenues, and employers can calibrate their operations with the understanding that the minimum wage and paid leave law will stand.”

Prop. 206 raises salaries annually until 2020, when the minimum wage hits $12 per hour. The measure also allows workers to earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, depending on the size of the business, and broadens the conditions that allow for sick time to include mental or physical illness or needing to care for a family member.

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