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July 26, 2016

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Pay freeze: What became of the push to raise Nevada’s minimum wage

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L.E. Baskow

Lizabeth Bonilla speaks at an SEIU rally near McDonald’s on West Sahara Avenue joined by other minimum-wage workers to support raising the minimum wage in Nevada on Thursday, March 26, 2015.

Amid the fervor of caucus season — the day that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders visited union workers on a picket line outside of Sunrise Hospital, the day that they addressed Nevada issues at a town hall in front of a national audience on television, and two days before the Nevada Democratic caucuses — the minimum wage ballot initiative was quietly withdrawn.

The initiative, first put forward in November, would have gradually raised the minimum wage in Nevada to $13 an hour by 2024 from its current level, $8.25. The group backing the initiative, the Committee to Raise the Minimum Wage, would have needed to gather more than 55,000 signatures of registered voters by June 21 to get it on the ballot.

But a couple of weeks before the caucuses, the initiative’s supporters decided to withdraw the petition, said Laura Martin, associate director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, known as PLAN, one of the main advocates of the initiative.

“I think we decided now is not the right time for us — timing, and what kind of time we were looking at,” Martin said. “We can always find more people, we can always raise more money, but we’re never going to get more time.”

Discussions about a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage started over the summer, Martin said. PLAN and other advocates for a higher wage had spent the spring of 2015 battling attacks on labor by Republican legislators who had been swept into office during the 2014 election.

“We spent too much energy trying to kill bad bills, and some of those snuck through, particularly when it comes to labor,” Martin said.

But as the 2016 election season progressed, PLAN realized it didn’t have enough time to focus on voter activation as well as a campaign to push the minimum wage initiative forward, so they backed off the wage measure.

The group is now devoting a significant portion of its efforts toward helping the Culinary Union on its citizenship and voter registration drive ahead of the general election in Nevada. Their first workshop was over the weekend, where about 100 people completed their citizenship paperwork.

“It’s just a constant decision to redirect our energy, like, ‘Oh my God that’s a great idea, but we don’t have time to deal with it,’” Martin said.

For the initiative, the road forward wouldn't have been an easy one.

Shortly after it was filed, a group called the Committee to Preserve Nevada Jobs challenged it in court. The Las Vegas Latin Chamber, the Las Vegas Metro Chamber and the Chamber of Reno, Sparks and Northern Nevada comprised that committee.

“Our opposition effort was based primarily on a legal opposition,” said Matt Griffin, one of the committee’s attorneys. “There are provisions in there that, in our opinion, should not have been included.”

One of those provisions was language that, in the opinion of the committee’s attorneys, did not explain that employers who violated minimum wage laws would be subject to triple damages.

However, Bradley Schrager, an attorney for supporters of the initiative, said those provisions were crucial.

“What they complained about most in the initiative were the enforcement provisions,” Schrager said. “We always felt from the beginning that it isn’t worth doing an initiative that helps people if they can’t enforce their rights.”

In January, a district court judge gave the petition the go-ahead. But attorneys representing the chambers had appealed to the state Supreme Court when the initiative was withdrawn in February.

Martin said that although the court battle would have been costly in both time and money, it wasn’t the key factor in the decision to drop the initiative.

“I don’t want to present the assumption that the chamber can bully its way through lawsuits to stop progressive people from doing stuff,” Martin said. “It had less to do with them and more us recognizing a huge opportunity to turn out voters this year.”

Martin said 2016 presented unique circumstances, particularly for the citizenship drive, given the state of the presidential election and, specifically, the rise of Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

“A lot of people are saying they’ve been here for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years but never applied (for citizenship),” Martin said. “Nine times out of 10, they’re like, ‘Well, I didn’t care, but now I want to vote against Trump.”

Regardless of why it happened, the redirection of energy by PLAN comes as good news for those opposed to the initiative.

“For us, we believe it was an ill-conceived ballot initiative petition that was damaging not just to employers but to the economic climate of the state,” said Paul Moradkhan, vice president of government affairs for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce.

For the chambers, the withdrawal means not having to keep fighting the initiative in court and not having to prepare for battles during the signature-gathering phase and during the ballot process itself.

That leaves time to focus on other issues — for the Las Vegas chamber, focusing on everything from economic development and investments in transportation infrastructure, and for the Northern Nevada chamber, supporting tax increases to fund Washoe County schools.

“Certainly, we’ve got enough on our plate,” said Tray Abney, director of government relations for the Chamber of Reno, Sparks and Northern Nevada. “It’s one less thing on the ballot, one less thing to spend money on.”

The chambers contend that an increase in the minimum wage would have an adverse effect on job growth and job creation in the state, but they anticipate that the issue will resurface in the 2017 legislative session.

One all but certain example is Sen. Tick Segerblom’s state constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Segerblom, who introduced the amendment last session, said he planned to put it forward again in 2017. He added that in order for it to succeed, Democrats would need to retake control of the Legislature.

However, Segerblom said he wasn’t surprised that proponents withdrew the ballot initiative, though he believed it may have driven extra Democratic voters to the ballot box in November. He expects a ballot measure on legalization of recreational marijuana use will do the same thing.

“It’s difficult to get a petition like that on the ballot, and there’s a lot of efforts going on out there,” Segerblom said. “There just wasn’t the sentiment to make that one of the priorities.”

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