Johnson County minimum wage hike unlawful, Iowa official says

Johnson Board of Supervisors may press ahead anyway

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DES MOINES — Johnson County supervisors appear ready to press ahead with a proposal to set a minimum wage higher than the statewide rate even though Iowa’s labor commissioner believes such a move runs afoul of state law.

Michael Mauro, Iowa’s labor commissioner, said in a statement Thursday that a local minimum wage higher than the state’s current $7.25 hourly standard would be unconstitutional.

He reached that conclusion after consultation with the Iowa Workforce Development legal department, according to IWD spokeswoman Courtney Greene.

“Under the Iowa Constitution’s Counties Home Rule provision, Article III, Section 39A, a county is granted home rule power and authority not inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly,” according to the statement. “Because Iowa Code section 91D.1 expressly states the minimum wage is $7.25, a county setting the minimum wage above $7.25 would be inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly and unconstitutional.”

Supervisor Mike Carberry, who introduced the proposal along with supervisors Janelle Rettig and Rod Sullivan, said he isn’t surprised by the reaction, but said he plans to move anyway.

“It’s my read that the county attorney’s office has given us the verbal go ahead. If they didn’t think this was legal they would not have allowed us to put this on the agenda,” he said. “I think the agenda is to keep moving this forward and we’ll probably be starting to vote on this in about a month.”

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said he is in support of raising the minimum wage in the county, but added his vote will hinge on County Attorney Janet Lyness’s interpretation of Iowa law.

“If the county attorney’s office says this is not allowed I would not push for it,” he said.

Lyness could not be reached for comment Thursday. But she had said Wednesday that more research was needed on the legality of such an ordinance.

The county’s tentative plan is to locally boost the state’s $7.25 hourly minimum by 95 cents in each of the next three years, beginning in November. It would raise the local base to $10.10 per hour by 2017.

Officials with the Iowa State Association of Counties indicated Thursday they had reached a conclusion similar to IWD’s.

“Because of the state and the feds taking action on the minimum wage, that supersedes home rule on it,” said Jamie Cashman, the government relations manager. “So, if they did not take action on it, then the county according to home rule could do whatever they wanted to.”

Johnson County officials still could set minimum wage standards for their own employees, Cashman said, but as for setting countywide standards for public and private-sector workers, “no, the state and feds would supersede that.”

The proposed ordinance would apply in all municipalities in Johnson County — such as Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty — but city councils would have the ability to pass counter ordinances if they want.

Gov. Terry Branstad said he has not researched the proposes measure’s legality since it’s “brand-new” to Iowa.

But he believed having different wage thresholds among counties would be problematic.

“I think that could create a lot of confusion and could put some businesses at a competitive disadvantage if they have to pay a much higher wage than their neighbors in a neighboring community or something like that. It’s better to be addressed on a national or state level, in my opinion,” he said.

Iowa last raised its minimum in 2007.

The Iowa Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority, voted 27-22 this year to boost the state’s minimum wage to $8.75 an hour by July 1, 2016 — providing a 75-cent hourly raise to the current minimum on July 1 and a second 75-cent jump one year later. However, Republicans, who hold a 57-43 edge in the Iowa House, declined to take it up.

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