High court deciding on wage increase
Decision could be last word on N.O. fight
05/14/02

By Stephanie Grace
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune


The question of whether thousands of low-wage workers in New Orleans will soon get a raise is now in the hands of the state's highest court.
In what could be the final step in a lengthy legal battle, the Louisiana Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments on the so-called living wage amendment to the city charter, which voters approved by a 63-37 margin this year.

If it survives the legal challenge, the measure will raise the hourly minimum wage to $6.15, $1 above the federal level, for everyone who works within the city limits except those employed by nonprofits, government agencies or businesses grossing less than $500,000 per year.

Opponents, led by a consortium of associations calling themselves the Small Business Coalition, are seeking to block the amendment. They argue that it would violate a state law, passed after proponents gathered signatures to put it before voters, which prohibits parishes and municipalities from setting their own minimum wages.

Civil District Court Judge Rosemary Ledet upheld the amendment in late March, but the high court has put it on hold pending a final ruling.

While the arguments Monday touched on the wisdom and morality of giving the city's working poor a boost, they centered mainly on the legal argument over whether the Legislature can trump home rule charters such as the one that governs New Orleans, which enjoy wide constitutional leeway.

Edward Harold and Topper Thompson, attorneys for the business coalition, argued that the city cannot regulate a relationship between private employer and employee, and that the state has a "vital interest" in blocking any local minimum wage because it would lead to "instability and uncertainty," and ultimately drive business away.

"Nobody can argue that the economy of Louisiana is not a vital state interest," Harold said.

Louis Robein, attorney for the New Orleans Campaign for a Living Wage, argued that local governments frequently dictate relations between private parties.
As an example, he cited the city's booting ordinance, which sets the price a company can charge to have a parking boot removed from a car parked on private property.

Co-counsel Bill Quigley argued that the state has not met the burden of showing it has a vital interest in stopping the wage increase and of applying the least intrusive remedy possible.

Lawyers and activists on both sides said they expect a swift decision.

Stephanie Grace can be reached at sgrace@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3383.

05/14/02

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