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$15 Pima County minimum wage 'not possible' without BoS support, proponents say

Number of signatures required to put initiative on ballot make repeat of Tucson campaign impractical

A push for a $15 minimum wage law in Pima County is unlikely to gather steam, as the organizers of a successful initiative in the city of Tucson say the barriers to putting a county-wide measure on the ballot are just too steep.

Without support from a majority of the members of the Board of Supervisors, an increase in the minimum wage for all workers in the county won't happen, proponents said. The number of signatures required to put an initiative before county voters is so much larger than in the city of Tucson that such county-level campaigns rarely, if ever, are even attempted.

The Board of Supervisors discussed a possible increase in minimum wage during a Nov. 16 meeting. Supervisors Matt Heinz and Adelita Grijalva, both Democrats, supported the idea, but Supervisors Rex Scott and Steve Christy, a Democrat and Republican, respectively, joined Sharon Bronson, the Democratic chairwoman of the County Board, in opposing it. The supervisors never brought forward a motion for a vote.

On Nov. 2, Tucson voters easily approved Prop. 206, which will raise the minimum wage within the city limits to $15 by 2025 then peg it to inflation. The proposition passed 2-1.

Supervisor Scott, who endorsed the Tucson ballot measure, told campaigners for the Tucson Fight for $15 privately that they would have to repeat their canvassing success to put the wage hike on a countywide ballot. The reason he opposed a move by the Board of Supervisors, Scott said, was because it wasn’t their role to take such a “bold and audacious” step.

“You’re not going to build the kind of public support that you would need for that kind of audacious step if it’s a decision that’s made by just three people,” Scott told TucsonSentinel.com. “Asking the Board of Supervisors to do that is not only undemocratic, it’s inherently not the way you’re going to build public support for that, especially among the affected businesses.”

If Pima County is going to be the only Arizona county out of 15 to have a $15 minimum wage, he said, it should only happen after a “robust public debate and the public vote.”

Tucson Fight for $15 organizers delivered almost 30,000 signatures to put the issue on the city ballot, but they would need 58,284 signatures by July 7 to put the issue on a Pima County ballot for the next election.

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Campaigners delivered a substantial margin more than the 14,826 signatures they needed to crack the city ballot, but the county signature requirements are a “massive amount... that’s not in proportion for what’s possible,” said CJ Boyd, who was the campaign manager for Tucson Fight for $15.

“We knew it was a big lift to get enough signatures for the city,” Boyd said. “But with the county you have twice as many people in Pima County and almost four times as many signatures that are needed.”

The effort would also be unfeasible, Boyd said. “You would have to spend six digits just on canvassing,” he said, though he’s certain a $15 minimum wage would pass at the county level because a majority of county voters supported the statewide minimum wage increase in 2016.

“I think it would pass; it’s just a matter of getting it on the ballot,” he said. “So the only other way would be getting three of the five supervisors to vote for it.”

Regional compact

Supervisors can put issues on the ballot themselves, but attorneys for the county told the board the minimum wage issue “exceeds their statutory authority” to be referred to the ballot, Scott said. Boyd asked Scott to release the attorneys’ written opinion, and Scott said he’d be happy to but it requires a vote from the board first.

Other campaigners have tried to collect signatures for various ballot initiatives in the past, but Boyd said it’s never been done successfully before. According to the Pima County Elections Department, no one has ever created a ballot initiative by canvassing since 2002, and they’re unsure if anyone had before that date.

Scott supports a minimum wage increase in the county, he said during the Board meeting, even saying it’s “ridiculous” that Congress hasn’t increased the federal minimum wage since 2009. What he told Boyd and his group privately, however, was their only other option would be to develop a regional compact.

That compact, Scott said, would mean reaching out to the relevant chambers of commerce, nonprofits, advocacy groups and school districts — because of the number of minimum wage employees schools have — and finding a way for them to agree to pay their workers a $15 minimum wage.

There’s a model for this, he said, based on what happened after the 2017 defeat of Strong Start Tucson, a city initiative that would have raised taxes a half-percent to fund early childhood education. After it failed, campaigners and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council built public support for the county to remove barriers to quality pre-K, Scott said, and later he voted to fund free preschooling in Pima County and played a significant part in bringing it to a board vote.

The regional compact would have to stand without the support of the county government though, Scott said. His idea is an agreement strong enough to both last over time and be enforced without county policy.

The issue that Boyd sees with the regional compact idea is that “corporations don’t have a real human interest in paying their workers a livable wage.”

“It’s a nice idea,” he said. “There’s lots of ethical business owners who are already paying their workers a living wage... part of why we’re doing this is because, of course while those exist, there’s also people who are going to pay the minimum amount they have to and they’re not going to pay a cent more.”

The pre-K model that Scott gave is “a little different because you’re talking about businesses,” Boyd said.

“We have so many amazing local businesses, but the Walmarts and McDonalds and Starbucks, they’re just going to do the minimum amount that they have to,” he said. “And I don’t think that there’s a pre-K equivalent of McDonalds.”

Scott understands that canvassing for the issue countywide would be “a heavy lift,” he said, but he thinks that the time they have until July 7 is enough to get the signatures they need.

“Granted that’s a big number of signatures,” Scott said. “But if it’s something that they want to do, they could get started right after the first of the year, and I don’t think it’s completely unachievable.”

Boyd understands that Scott doesn’t see it as his role to pass a minimum wage increase, he said, but disagrees. Doing a ballot initiative “is just not possible,” he said, so the only other option he sees is to convince either Scott or Supervisor Bronson to support it.

No Pima County Fight for $15

He and his group haven’t met with Bronson yet, Boyd said, though he said it would be worth it just to try. But Bronson has indicated she doesn't favor a county minimum wage law, and echoed Scott during the November board meeting, saying “we need to have a conversation with all the stakeholders.”

“We just need a conversation, we need a meeting of minds, with the business community and the nonprofits, all the stakeholders,” she said. “Let’s see how the city’s measure plays out, but frankly, given inflation, we’re already there, past the minimum wage, with many businesses.”

Bronson specifically mentioned the difficulties Goodwill is expecting to have with paying developmentally disabled employees a $15 minimum wage as being a concern for her. She agreed with points made by Supervisor Grijalva, who spoke in favor of having a more uniform minimum wage across the county so employers who pay higher wages don’t have to compete with employers who pay a federal minimum wage, but ultimately aligned with Scott.

Mayor Regina Romero and the Tucson City Council also turned down the opportunity to pass a $15 minimum wage through City Council vote. Scott notes that after it passed on the ballot, Romero had called on the supervisors to pass a countywide policy during two radio interviews, but he didn’t see why they should if the city didn’t, he said.

The people involved with the Tucson Fight for $15 also aren’t pushing too aggressively for the countywide minimum wage hike, Boyd said. There’s an understanding that any kind of pressure campaign wouldn’t work.

“I don’t think an aggressive campaign against Sharon or Rex would be effective,” he said. “I don’t think that a public pressure campaign would have an effect on either of them.”

Boyd said he’s hopeful that Scott is still thinking about the issue and considering how limited their options are considering that the board can't create a ballot initiative for a minimum wage increase. The only option that remains, he said, is waiting and hoping that Scott might see things their way.

“We’re more interested in talking to Rex, seeing if we can offer him new information and seeing if we can persuade him to feel as we do that it is the supervisors’ place to vote on something like that,” he said. “That’s the only way it’s going to happen at the county level.”

City proposition implementation a concern for organizers

Tucson Fight for $15 still has their eye on the implementation of the city proposition, whether there will be lawsuits against the city and whether they’ll be able to help.

Some legal concerns have already appeared as Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin submitted a memo to City Manager Mike Ortega saying parts of the proposition may not be lawful. Boyd said that’s of some concern because they want to make sure the law is implemented fully.

The energy of Tucson Fight for $15 is also divided right now, Boyd said, as their main goal of getting a higher minimum wage in Tucson now seems mostly accomplished.

“The Fight for $15 was/is a group of activists and nonprofit leaders and labor organizers who all are doing other things and who came together to do this one thing,” he said. “The main part of that we did, and now it’s a matter of making sure that it’s done well. But, there is not, at this time, an organization called Pima County Fight for $15.”

A political action committee focused on getting a $15 minimum wage for Pima County probably won’t happen, Boyd said, given the challenges.

“We’re all interested in seeing it pass at the county level,” he said. “But that’s not a full-time endeavor right now.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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Bennito L. Kelty/TucsonSentinel.com

Tucson Fight for $15 Campaign Manager CJ Boyd thanks the volunteers who helped pass a minimum wage increase for the city of Tucson on election night, Nov.2.

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