The Associated Press State & Local Wire
September 5, 2002

Proponents of higher wage may go to Legislature

Proponents of higher minimum wages may take the next round of their battle to the Legislature after the Louisiana Supreme Court killed an attempt to force employers in New Orleans to pay $1-an-hour more than the federal minimum.

On a 6-1 vote Wednesday, the high court upheld the constitutionality of a 1997 state law banning local governments from imposing their own minimum wages. The ruling did away with a victory proponents posted in February when New Orleans voters overwhelmingly backed the higher local minimum. Wade Rathke, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union, said higher wage proponents were not finished, though the Supreme Court ruling was a disappointment.

About 70,000 workers in New Orleans would have received some sort of a pay raise, he said. The city has a heavy economic dependence on low-paying jobs in hotels, restaurants and other aspects of the tourist industry.

Rathke said proponents hoped to get a legislative audience to raise the minimum wage on a statewide level. However, state Rep. Steve Scalise, an opponent of the New Orleans proposal, said there was "absolutely no support" for such a law.

"It is a federal issue and the federal government needs to set" the minimum wage, said Scalise, R-Jefferson.

Rathke also said proponents would study more-limited minimum wage increases - such as those imposed by communities in other states on businesses that have government contracts.

Proponents hope to meet with business groups - "after the gloating is over" - to look at the city's long-term economic future, Rathke said.

"We're not going to win by driving our people to other states," he said."We're not going to win by going to the bottom in wages and jobs."

For now, though, business opponents of the higher minimum said it avoided economic chaos. Jim Funk, executive vice president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said that if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way, petitioners and a voting majority in New Orleans could have effectively raised their own employee benefits through the ballot.

The ruling also could have affected minimum wages in other Louisiana cities and "opened a Pandora's box," he said.

Higher-wage proponents won the initial court fight when Civil District Judge Rose Ledet ruled that the state ban on local minimum wages was unconstitutional - and New Orleans' home rule charter allowed it to set its own minimum wage without state interference.

The high court's majority disagreed on both points, but not without dissent from one justice and a comment from another who said the issue should be revisited again - but not in court.

Justice Bernette Johnson, the lone dissenter, disagreed with the majority's conclusion that the higher minimum wage would have hurt the state - and the Legislature was within its rights to impose the ban. Johnson said there was"overwhelming evidence" that low wages hurt the state.

"The city's effort to insure that a working family has the ability to live above the poverty line, without relying on government subsidies (food stamps, etc.) is a legitimate exercise of its authority under the home rule charter," Johnson wrote.

Justice John Weimer, who voted with the majority but filed his own opinion, wrote that the case "does highlight a serious societal issue," but not one that is "to be answered by the courts in the quiet solitude of judicial chambers."

"This difficult policy decision must be made following reasoned public discussion before those governmental entities established to resolve such policy issues," Weimer wrote.


Click here to return to the New Orleans Living Wage page.