Minimum wage hike lands in Brown’s lap

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators should work to avert a battle over a union-backed initiative aimed for the November ballot that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

United Healthcare Workers West, part of the Service Employees International Union, successfully focused the Capitol’s attention by spending roughly $2.4 million to qualify the Fair Wage Act of 2016 for this year’s general election ballot.

Like all initiatives, the United Healthcare Workers’ measure is a blunderbuss. It would require that all employers, no matter their size or location, must raise the minimum by $1 an hour each year until 2021, when it would hit $15. The wage would rise each year beyond 2021 based on cost of living.

The initiative probably would pass in this presidential election year when turn-out will be high. A Field Poll last August found that 68 percent of voters favored raising the minimum wage to $15.

Earlier this week, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 81 percent of likely California voters think the gap between the rich and poor is widening, and 58 percent of likely voters think government should do more to bridge the gap.

Reality must be setting in. The wage will rise. The question comes down to details. Republicans, weakened as they are in Sacramento, likely won’t be part of any compromise. That leaves it to Brown and Democrats to fashion a deal that would avoid a costly initiative fight.

Unlike some politicians, such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who were quick to endorse the initiative, Brown held back, clearly worried about the impact on the government spending. The minimum wage hike would cost millions in higher state wages. In January, Brown warned that any minimum wage increase “has to be done very carefully and it has to be done over time.”

“It has to take into account recessions and it has to take into account what other programs can be cut to finance it. Or what taxes are going to be generated to pay for it. So it’s not a free good,” Brown said in January.

The cost of living varies widely by region. But although costs are far higher in the Silicon Valley than in the Central Valley, organized labor likely would oppose any compromise that follows an Oregon model—setting different wages for different parts of the state.

One alternative could involve timing, as happened in New York. Small businesses and businesses and local governments in more rural parts of California ought to be given more time to reach a $15 minimum than national chains operating in high-cost urban areas.

No minimum wage deal would please every business. Nor would labor get all that it wants. But newly implemented legislation gives Brown and legislators the power to avert initiative battles by finding compromises. They should use it.