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Michigan Supreme Court will hear case on wage laws, initiative process

The Michigan Supreme Court building in Lansing, with trees in the foreground.
Rick Pluta
The Michigan Supreme Court will decide whether the GOP-led Legislature violated the state Constitution in 2018 when it adopted two worker rights petition initiatives to keep them from going to the ballot and then amended them in the post-election lame duck session. (Photo by Rick Pluta/MPRN)

The Michigan Supreme Court will decide whether the Legislature exceeded its authority under the state Constitution when Republican majorities changed wage and paid sick leave laws that were enacted under Michigan’s petition initiative process.

In 2018, the GOP-controlled Legislature adopted two laws initiated by petition campaigns — one to boost the state minimum wage to $12 an hour and ratchet increases to inflation and the other to require businesses to let workers to accrue paid sick leave.

The minimum wage campaign submitted more than 280,000 signatures of registered voters.

The Legislature’s votes kept the questions from going to the ballot. But then Republicans waited for the post-election lame duck session and voted to weaken the laws. Republican Governor Rick Snyder went along and signed the watered-down versions.

That led to the legal challenges.

Activist Danielle Atkinson worked on those campaigns and said what Republicans did was unfair and unconstitutional.

“This has been an injustice not only about minimum wage and earned sick time,” she told the Michigan Public Radio Network. “Those are at the heart of the case, but the bigger problem is democracy, and we just want to have a ruling that says what they did was unconstitutional.”

Article 2, Section 9 of the Michigan Constitution says:
The people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and to enact and reject laws, called the initiative, and the power to approve or reject laws enacted by the legislature, called the referendum. The power of initiative extends only to laws which the legislature may enact under this constitution.

Atkinson was surprised by the news that the Michigan Supreme Court would hear the case since it has languished in the courts.

A Michigan Court of Claims judge ruled the Legislature’s “adopt-and-amend” action was unconstitutional, but the state Court of Appeals reversed the decision in January.

The Michigan hourly minimum wage is currently $10.10 with a lower rate for workers who also collect tips.

Business groups, which are not direct parties to the cases, said a more aggressive minimum wage increase would cause a strain on their budgets.

Justin Winslow with the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association says his members are closely following the case.

“Their business model is not going to function and they’re going to have to quickly lay off a lot of their restaurant servers to try to find a way to keep their business open if the Supreme Court rules that what the Legislature did was unconstitutional,” he said. “So that’s just more anxiety for the restaurant industry that it could, frankly, not use right now.”

The Supreme Court will hear the case in its coming session. The court order invited interested parties to file amicus briefs, but no specific date for oral arguments has been set.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.