Florida’s $15 minimum wage botched by Legislature | Editorial
Now lawmakers are looking to clean up their mess with another bad constitutional remedy.
Sade Andrews, 19, a fast food worker at McDonalds, poses for a portrait in Tampa on Sept. 3 after participating in a caravan promoting a minimum wage increase in advance of last year's statewide referendum.
Sade Andrews, 19, a fast food worker at McDonalds, poses for a portrait in Tampa on Sept. 3 after participating in a caravan promoting a minimum wage increase in advance of last year's statewide referendum. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Feb. 7, 2021

No one should be surprised that some Florida lawmakers are looking to water down the state’s minimum wage requirement. After all, frustrated voters effectively sidelined them last year by putting a $15 hourly wage in the state Constitution after years of legislative inaction. Constitutional amendments are blunt tools, the wrong instrument for routine policymaking. But lawmakers have only themselves to blame for a wage mess that was entirely preventable.

Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that gradually increases the state’s minimum wage. Currently at $8.65 an hour, the wage will rise to $10 in September, and increase $1 annually until reaching $15 an hour in 2026. Business groups opposed the statewide referendum, noting the costs to employers, and warning that low-paid workers would be unintended victims, as restaurants and other industries reliant on entry-level workers would be forced to trim their payrolls. The wage amendment that voters approved was self-executing, meaning it did not require legislative action.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, recently proposed amending the state Constitution to allow the Legislature to exempt felons, people under 21 and others from Florida’s new minimum wage requirements. He cites reports that minimum wage requirements have a “disparate impact” on low-skilled workers, such as teenagers. Brandes said he believes that “recently released incarcerated felons” also would be hurt by the higher wage, as felons would be less competitive in most labor markets.

Brandes’ proposal would allow the Legislature to reduce the wage for several categories of workers, including “for other hard-to-hire employees,” which the legislation doesn’t define. Brandes said the measure would provide a “temporary” wage to help preserve low-skilled jobs, though the legislation makes no mention of a temporary timetable.

The Tampa Bay Times editorial board opposed the wage amendment before the November elections. While acknowledging that higher wages could help close the wealth gap, the Times noted the measure would cost jobs and put companies out of business. The Times’ larger concern was that the Constitution was the wrong tool for manipulating wages. Constitutional referendums are often largely an all or nothing choice — $15 an hour for everyone, everywhere, or no increase at all.

The Legislature could have avoided the sloppy approach of proposing another constitutional amendment — on the heels of the original one that passed only months ago — by reacting over the years to the popular call for a higher minimum wage. Lawmakers should have addressed the issue by making statutory changes to wage policy, whether increasing the minimum wage on a more gradual scale or doing what other states have done, from establishing stepped wages for minors, students and trainees to making accommodations for small businesses. Instead, they ignored the will of the people, so the people voted the $15 wage into the Constitution.

By resisting such popular appeals, the Republican-led Legislature now faces the high hurdle of amending a constitutional amendment. Lawmakers cannot simply pass a new law to enact Brandes’ proposals. Instead, a super-majority of the Legislature would need to approve his bill, and then it would need approval by 60 percent of Florida voters during the 2022 election.

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The Legislature created this mess by its own refusal to act. It’s more evidence, as if it was needed, that the Constitution is the wrong place for everyday policymaking — but increasingly, the destination of choice for a fed-up electorate.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, editorial writers John Hill and Jim Verhulst, and Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news


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