MichMash: Here’s Why Dems Might Vote Against Minimum Wage Increase

Cheyna Roth and Jake Neher discuss how this unusual situation might shake out as the Legislature returns to Lansing.

Michigan state capitol building

Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, MI in January, 2018.

WDET Digital

Lawmakers are returning to Lansing after their summer break.

One big question is whether the Legislature will vote to approve two petition-initiated laws before they can go to voters on the November ballot.

The proposals would increase Michigan’s minimum wage to $12/hour and require employers to provide workers with paid sick leave.

As part of the weekly series MichMash, Jake Neher and Cheyna Roth talk about why Republicans might vote to enact these progressive proposals — and why Democrats might actually vote against them.

Click on the audio player above to hear that conversation.

How the process works with petition initiated laws (a.k.a. ballot proposals).

Anyone who wants to enact a new state law through initiative has to collect valid signatures from registered voters totaling at least eight percent of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor at the last gubernatorial election. Right now, that number is 252,523 valid signatures.

Once a petition initiative is certified by the State Board of Canvassers — instead of going directly to the ballot — it first goes to the state Legislature for an up-or-down vote. No amendments can be made to the language of the proposal. Lawmakers can hold that up-or-down vote, propose its own competing ballot petition, or simply not take any action. That last option sends the proposal to the ballot for voters to decide.

The Michigan Legislature’s website states:
“The legislature has 40 days from the time it receives the petition to enact or reject the proposed law or to propose a different measure on the same question. If not enacted, the original initiative proposal and any different measure passed by the legislature must go before the voters as a ballot proposal. Any substitute passed by the legislature would be a separate proposal.”

Here’s the most important part of the process as it pertains to the current situation! If voters approve these proposals and they become law, lawmakers can only make changes to those laws with a three-fourths super-majority in each chamber of the Legislature. However! If lawmakers themselves approve the proposals before they go to the ballot, the Legislature can amend the laws later on with simple majorities in each chamber.

Why Republicans might want to vote to raise the minimum wage.

State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) says his default position on these initiatives is to hold a vote in the Legislature before they go to the ballot, for the simple reason that they can then change those laws more easily.

Republicans might also fear that this and other ballot proposals might attract more progressive-minded voters to the polls in November, which could threaten GOP candidates’ chances on the ballot. If lawmakers take action before that time, the questions won’t appear on the ballot and it could conceivably give progressives fewer reasons to show up to the polls.

Why Democrats in the Legislature might decide to vote against raising the minimum wage

Democrats fear Republicans would be gaming the system — that a vote to raise the minimum wage would be a sham designed to gut the proposal after the fact.

The worry is that Republicans, after approving the measure, would go back during the 2018 “lame duck” session and vote to weaken or cripple these wage protections for workers.

“Lame duck” is the time after an election and before a new Legislature is sworn in, which is notorious for controversial bills flying through the Legislature in the dead of night (Right to Work, Michigan’s emergency manager law, etc.)

“Obviously, Democrats are opposed to that,” says state House Democratic Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing). “To me, it’s breaking the spirit of the (state) constitution and it’s obviously telling the hundreds-of-thousands of people who signed these petitions that their voices don’t matter.”

And that, folks, is why there is a chance we could soon see Democrats vote against a minimum wage increase in the Legislature, as Republicans vote to increase it.

Something similar has happened before…

In 2014, there was a petition circulating to raise Michigan’s minimum wage to $10/hour. Republicans did not want this question on the ballot for reasons stated above, and because they generally oppose raising the minimum wage.

In response, GOP leaders in the Legislature teamed up with Democrats to pass a minimum wage increase that was less generous — $9.25/hour gradually phased-in over a number of years and indexed to inflation after that.

“What we did, I think, was responsibly address an issue that was potentially extreme and tough for the economy and get all people together to agree to it,” says former state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe), who led the Senate in 2014.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a two-thirds super-majority in each chamber would be required to amend a voter-initiated law. Amendments to those laws require a three-quarters super-majority in each chamber.


  • Cheyna Roth
    Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She's also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.
  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.