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Mpls. minimum wage increase poised for comeback

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MINNEAPOLIS — A push to get a minimum wage increase in front of Minneapolis voters fizzled last year, but with mayoral and city council elections ahead this fall, backers say the time is right to act.

Strong support remains among city leaders to raise the current $9.50 an hour state minimum to as much as $15 an hour. There's equally strong pushback from some business owners, especially restaurateurs who say it will drastically raise operating costs.

A higher wage is likely to pass the council this year, Mayor Betsy Hodges told the city's chamber of commerce this week.

"The reality is Minneapolis is going to go it alone," said Hodges, who'd initially pushed for a regional minimum wage approach. "Like it or not, there is enough support on the City Council to raise a Minneapolis-only minimum wage."

Hodges' newfound support for the city-only measure comes as she prepares for what is shaping up to be a tough re-election bid this fall. The DFLer is facing challenges from at least four other candidates, including civil rights activist Nekima Levy-Pounds and City Council Member Jacob Frey.

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City leaders had a chance last year to put a citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour on the ballot. However, city attorney Susan Segal argued against it saying a minimum wage charter amendment likely wasn't legal but a regular ordinance would be. The council backed her view, turning aside the ballot effort.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled later that the City Council has sole legislative authority in Minneapolis and the wage measure wasn't eligible to be decided by voters. Still, it left many minimum wage increase backers bitter.

City officials directed staff to study the issue with an eye toward drafting an ordinance, and to talk to people it would affect.

$9.50 an hour is not enough

In listening sessions, many citizens made it clear that they can't live on the current $9.50 an hour state minimum wage.

At a public meeting Tuesday night at a Latino mall on Lake Street, restaurant worker Ignacia Ambriz said $9.50 an hour is far too low to cover her basic expenses.

"Nine-fifty, $10, $11, it's just not making it," she said. "We're just not going to make it to pay our bills."

However, at a separate public comment meeting Wednesday, Dennis Curran, owner of a Nicollet Avenue restaurant popular with seniors, said he'd have to raise his menu prices 25 percent.

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"The last time we had a minimum wage [increase], this elderly woman came in and she was in tears and she said, 'Dennis, I'm not going to be able to eat here anymore,' because I had to raise the price," Curran said, adding, "please consider the senior citizens. Don't leave them out."

Steve Vranicar, who manages a Kowalski's grocery store in far south Minneapolis, said higher city wages will mean higher prices, and that'll send customers over the border to Bloomington, Richfield and other suburbs that will have a competitive advantage.

That's the reason Hodges preferred a regional approach. But with Republicans taking control of the Minnesota legislature, Hodges says the path to a higher state or metro-area wage is far narrower.

Hodges this week didn't say how much the city's minimum wage should be, but added that it should apply equally to all businesses, with no exemption for tipped workers.

Besides the coming elections, supporters of a $15 minimum wage believe the power shift at the state Capitol makes passing a local ordinance all the more urgent.

State Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, has introduced a bill that would prohibit cities from setting their own minimum wages. While unlikely to make it past the veto pen of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, the legislation signaled how increasingly complicated the Minneapolis wage issue could become.

"The representative government that we have sends us here to make those types of decisions and people want to do an end-run around the Legislature and go do it at the city council level," Hertaus said. "I just think that that's inherently unfair for the business community, who's trying to stay in business and create jobs."

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