Court clears way for $15 and hour minimum wage amendment

Voters will decide in November whether to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, after the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously approved a ballot proposal.

The proposed constitutional amendment, spearheaded by Orlando attorney John Morgan, had received enough petition signatures to go on the 2020 general-election ballot but still needed a sign-off from the Supreme Court.

Justices said in a 16-page opinion that the measure meets legal tests, including that it is limited to a single subject. It will appear on the ballot as Amendment 2.

“The proposed amendment clearly addresses only one subject, raising the minimum wage, and it does not substantially alter or perform the functions of multiple branches of government,” the opinion said. “Although it may affect contracts entered into and wages paid by each branch of government, these effects are incidental to the chief purpose of the amendment, which is not to alter or perform any governmental function.”

The proposal, which would need approval from 60 percent of voters to take effect, would increase the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour on Sept. 30, 2021 and increase it by $1 each year until it hits $15 an hour on Sept. 30, 2026. The minimum wage is $8.46 this year. 

Morgan, who also led a ballot drive in 2016 that broadly legalized medical marijuana, issued a statement Thursday saying he is ready to fight “to give every Floridian the dignity of a fair wage.”

“Now, the sprint to reverse decades of inequality really starts --- and let me tell you --- this is going to be a tough challenge,” Morgan said. “But just like voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of medical marijuana in 2016, I’m confident that we will do the same in 2020. I’m confident because Floridians are compassionate and know that giving every worker a fair wage means not just lifting up those who would directly benefit but lifting up our broader economy when hardworking folks have more money to spend.”

But the proposal, which will be on the ballot at the same time as the presidential election, has drawn criticism from Gov. Ron DeSantis and groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Critics argue, in part, that increasing the minimum wage would raise costs for businesses and lead to job cuts.

“We fully expected it to be confirmed (by the Supreme Court), but that doesn’t make it a good idea,” Edie Ousley, vice president of public affairs for the Florida Chamber, said in an email Thursday. “This ballot measure will actually hurt the very people its proponent claims it will help. In fact, Florida could very likely lose nearly half a million jobs by 2026, and we’ve seen estimates that are higher than that. This is the poster child for a proposed constitutional amendment masquerading as a turnout weapon to impact the presidential election.”

The Supreme Court is not supposed to consider the merits of proposed constitutional amendments but looks at issues such as the wording of ballot titles and summaries --- the wording that voters see when they go to the polls. Justices weigh issues such as whether proposals would be misleading and whether summaries meet a 75-word limit.

Thursday’s opinion said the minimum-wage proposal “clearly and accurately identifies the subject matter, and it complies with the word-count requirement.”

“Likewise, the ballot summary is clear and unambiguous and complies with the word-count requirement,” the opinion said. “Indeed, the ballot summary is nearly identical to the language of the proposed amendment itself, and it explains in a straightforward and accurate manner how the proposed changes … would affect the existing system ---  by raising the minimum wage incrementally on an annual basis to a certain point and then resuming the existing system of adjusting the minimum wage annually for inflation.”

The minimum-wage proposal is the first initiative that the Supreme Court has approved for the 2020 ballot, though several other proposals are pending. Those proposals include issues such as revamping the state’s primary-election system and deregulating the electric-utility industry.