Minimum wage hike lands in Jerry Brown’s lap

This rally in November was one of many held at the Capitol in favor of a $15-an-hour minimum wage in 2015.
This rally in November was one of many held at the Capitol in favor of a $15-an-hour minimum wage in 2015. efletcher@sacbee.com

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators should work to avert a battle over a union-backed initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

United Healthcare Workers West, part of the Service Employees International Union, focused the Capitol’s attention by spending roughly $2.4 million to qualify the Fair Wage Act of 2016 for this year’s November general-election ballot. Like all initiatives, the measure is a blunderbuss. It would require all employers, regardless of size or location, to raise the $10 minimum by $1 an hour each year until 2021, when it would hit $15. Increases would track the cost of living after that.

In this presidential election year, it likely will pass. Turnout will be high, and a Field Poll last August found that 68 percent of voters favored raising the minimum wage to $15. Earlier this week, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 81 percent of likely California voters think the gap between the rich and poor is widening, and 58 percent of likely voters think government should do more to bridge the gap.

So the wage will rise. The question just comes down to details. Republicans, weakened as they are in Sacramento, likely won’t be part of any compromise. That leaves it to Brown and Democrats to fashion a deal that would avoid a costly initiative fight.

Unlike some politicians, such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who were quick to endorse the initiative, Brown held back, clearly worried about the impact on government spending. Hiking the minimum would cost millions in higher state wages. In January, Brown warned that any minimum-wage increase “has to be done very carefully and it has to be done over time.”

“It has to take into account recessions, and it has to take into account what other programs can be cut to finance it. Or what taxes are going to be generated to pay for it. So it’s not a free good,” Brown said then.

But while the cost of living varies widely by region, organized labor likely would oppose any compromise that follows an Oregon model, setting different wages for different parts of the state.

One alternative could involve timing, as happened in New York. Small businesses generally and businesses and local governments in more rural parts of California ought to be given more time to reach a $15 minimum than national chains operating in high-cost urban areas.

No deal would please every business, or totally satisfy labor. But newly implemented legislation gives Brown and legislators the power to avert initiative battles by finding compromises. They should use it.