Local Government

Linn County Supervisors vote down change to minimum wage increase date

The amendment would have moved the first $1 increase from January to July

The Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids.
The Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids.

CEDAR RAPIDS — While it appeared the Linn County Board of Supervisors had enough votes to push the first $1 increase in the county’s minimum wage ordinance from Jan. 1 to July 1, the measure failed to achieve a majority vote.

Supervisors Brent Oleson, who proposed the amendment, and John Harris voted in favor of the measure, while Supervisors Jim Houser, Ben Rogers and Stacey Walker voted down the proposal during the board’s 1:30 p.m. meeting.

Oleson said his original understanding was that Houser would vote in favor of the amendment.

“Thirteen minutes before this meeting I was told that, due to all kinds of pressures, Supervisor Houser would not honor his commitment, so I’ve wasted all of your time,” Oleson said. “That will affect my working relationship with Supervisor Houser from this day forward.”

However, Houser said his vote was based on “soul-searching” and information he received following the board’s 10 a.m. meeting.

“I think you have a right to change your position when you acquire additional information in your decision-making process,” he said.

Oleson, who earlier this year voted in favor of the county’s minimum wage ordinance, which will increase the local rate by $1 dollar annually until it reaches $10.15 an hour in 2019, said he still supports the measure.

His argument for the amendment was that raising the minimum wage next month, only to see it possibly reduced if the state Legislature takes up the matter in the upcoming General Assembly, would create unneeded strain on business owners and low wage earners.

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Oleson said his concern is the state could address the minimum wage in the upcoming session, which starts Jan. 9, and include a pre-emption clause that nullifies local governments’ ability to pass a local minimum wage ordinance.

“If pre-emption happens, our ordinance is moot. It’s like it never happened,” Oleson said.

However, Supervisor Walker expressed a desire to stay the course and argued that increasing the rate before state lawmakers convene further puts pressure on legislators to take action, something that several on the board cited as an original incentive to pursue a minimum-wage increase earlier this year.

“I want to remind you and others that the political landscape was the reason this county board, before I got here, decided to raise the minimum wage in the first place,” Walker said. “If it is a case that the state legislature wants to pre-empt this action or lower the minimum wage, then I certainly think it makes our action even more important and imperative.”

Supervisor Ben Rogers echoed Walker’s sentiments.

“I don’t want to get in the business of changing course of action by trying to predict what the state legislature is going to do and when they’re going to do it,” Rogers said.

When supervisors in Johnson, Linn, Polk and Wapello counties passed their respective minimum wage ordinances, they cited home-rule authority to defend their ability to raise a countywide ordinance.

Meanwhile, city councils within those counties also have begun flexing their home-rule powers, with a handful in each county passing counter ordinances that essentially opt out of the higher minimum wage and stick with the state/federal rule.

Some officials, including Iowa’s labor commissioner, have questioned if raising the minimum wage falls under home rule. But so far the issue has not been challenged in court.

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Some lawmakers, including House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, and Gov. Terry Branstad have expressed an interest in addressing the state minimum wage — with an eye toward pre-emption.

However, no one has been able to state definitively if any sort of pre-emption clause would be retroactive, meaning it would nullify existing county ordinances.

Regardless, Supervisors in Johnson County, where the first countywide minimum wage increase was passed last year, plan to stick with their ordinance. Johnson County’s rate reaches $10.10 Jan. 1.

Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig on Wednesday said she disagrees with Oleson’s proposal.

“I think that would be a terrible mistake and I’m really sad to see that. Because there is a case to be made that even if they try to circumvent us, that they will let our ordinances stand because they would not want to lower people’s salaries,” Rettig said.

In addition, Rettig expressed a desire to draft a statement reaffirming the county board’s stance on the minimum wage.

— Gazette reporter Madison Arnold contributed to this article.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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