Sister Kathleen Nolan, a member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, speaks against Senate Bill 1171, or Michigan's One Fair Wage proposal, on Nov. 28 at the state Capitol in Lansing. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal/AP)

In September, Republicans in the Michigan legislature did something atypical: With the blessing of business groups, they passed bills to raise the minimum wage and mandate employer-provided sick leave.

Neither Republican lawmakers nor the Chamber of Commerce are traditionally associated with support for a higher minimum wage and mandatory sick pay. But these particular bills were citizen-driven measures that were slated to appear before voters on the November ballot. By passing the bills legislatively, Republicans were able to remove them from the ballot completely, which in turn made them easier to eventually undo. Under Michigan law, a three-quarters majority is necessary to overturn a citizen-initiated ballot referendum, but a regular bill can be amended with votes from a simple majority of lawmakers.

Now, in the lame-duck session, that’s exactly what Republican lawmakers are doing. They plan to soon send legislation that slow-walks the minimum wage increase and drastically weakens the sick leave mandate to the outgoing Republican governor for approval — before the Democratic governor takes his place in January. Democrats and supporters of the original legislation are furious, calling it, among other things, “a blatant disregard of our democracy.” The group behind the minimum wage drive has threatened to sue.


Under the original ballot measure, the minimum wage would have increased to $12 an hour by 2022, and would have been indexed to inflation in the following years. Michigan One Fair Wage, the group behind the measure, collected more than 370,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. Opponents attempted to block the measure: Republicans on the Board of State Canvassers blocked certification of the signatures, and business groups filed complaints arguing the measure violated the state Constitution.

But the Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed and in late August ordered the state to put the measure on the ballot. Shortly thereafter, Republicans in the legislature adopted and passed the measure, along with a separate bill establishing a mandate for sick pay. That took both measures off the ballot. At the time, Democrats and supporters of the legislation worried that it was a prelude to weakening the bills.

Last week Republican lawmakers went to work on amendments to the minimum wage bill. Their latest legislation would slow-walk the minimum wage hike, causing it to not hit $12 until 2030 — eight years later than the original proposal. The Republican bill would also not index the minimum wage to inflation as the original legislation did. It would also drastically scale back increases for tipped workers. Under the original proposal, the tipped minimum wage would have hit $12 an hour by 2024. The Republican bill caps the tipped minimum at $4 an hour.

“Democracy is at risk in Michigan right now,” said Pete Vargas, campaign manager for the minimum wage initiative. “We need to protect the intent and spirit of the law and hold our legislators accountable for doing that, as well.”

Michigan is a microcosm of the minimum wage debate across the nation. A recent study by researchers at Central European University, New York University and Princeton found that in every single state, the minimum wage was set at a level well below what voters say they prefer. As part of the study, a 2016 survey found that the average Michigan resident desired a minimum wage of about $10.40 per hour. Under the original ballot measure, the minimum would have reached that level by 2020. Under the new Republican proposal, the minimum won’t hit that number until 2023 at the earliest, by which point it’s likely that state voters will have adjusted their preferences upward with inflation.

The Michigan case is emblematic in one other way: The minimum wage increase only came under consideration after a citizen-driven ballot initiative. The minimum wage study published this month concluded that states that allow ballot initiatives tend to have minimum wage policies that more closely reflect the will of the voters who live there.

The Republican legislative maneuvers in Michigan, however, underscore the extent to which lawmakers can thwart those increases when given the tools to do so.