DENVER – A state lawmaker from Adams County is working on a measure that would allow local governments to enact their own higher minimum-wage standards.
Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, told The Durango Herald his measure would repeal a 1999 law that gave the state control over minimum-wage issues, limiting local governments’ power.
Moreno believes that by eliminating the law, towns, cities and counties in Colorado would be able to establish local minimum wages commensurate with the local cost of living.
“We know that when workers have more money in their pockets, they’re going to turn around and spend that money in the local economy, and they’re going to create more job opportunities, they’re going to create increased revenue for businesses in their local areas,” Moreno said.
Moreno was careful to point out that he has requested only a title for the bill; he has not submitted a draft of the measure for introduction. The Colorado General Assembly will convene in January.
If he were to introduce the bill, the measure would face a difficult climb in a split Legislature, with Republicans controlling the Senate this upcoming session.
The 1999 law stated that local governments are prohibited from enacting ordinances with respect to minimum wage in the private sector. The current process requires statewide voter approval.
Colorado’s minimum wage is $8 after voters in 2006 approved a statewide ballot initiative that raised the hourly wage and tied it to inflation.
A similar discussion is taking place on the national level, with a proposal in Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. But progress on that effort has stalled.
Business interests immediately questioned the legality of Moreno’s proposal, pointing to the current ballot process in Colorado, and suggesting that there would be a constitutional conflict.
But Moreno said legislative legal counsel offered a preliminary opinion, stating that there would be no conflict because voters set only a rate and tied that to inflation. He said there is nothing in the Colorado Constitution that prohibits local governments from raising the rate themselves, so long as the new rate is still tied to inflation and the 1999 law is repealed.
Moreno carried a largely symbolic resolution in the state Legislature last year asking Congress to raise the minimum wage.
“I represent a lower-income area in Colorado, and there’s very much a feeling that it has become increasingly hard for an average family, or an average person, to make a living,” he said.
For many, the issue is about varying costs of living across Colorado. For example, Boulder and Durango have a higher cost of living than many other parts of the state.
“There are a lot of people in poverty, working people in poverty,” said Harry Hempy, a Boulder County resident and former Green Party gubernatorial candidate this year who has been working on the legislation. “Obviously, living in poverty isn’t good for people. It costs taxpayer money to supplement their income.”
But proponents will have a fight with business interests if the bill is formally introduced.
Chris Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Council, which represents retailers, said he worries about squeezing certain entry-level workers out of the job market.
“Ultimately, what happens is employers hire less people. Entry-level positions would be done away with because it creates all this pressure on labor costs for the employer, and suddenly, you’re not seeing high school kids who are just getting started,” Howes said.