$12 Arizona minimum-wage measure on the November ballot, judge rules

Macaela J Bennett and Alia Beard Rau, The Republic | azcentral.com4:49 p.m. MST August 20, 2016

(Photo: Danny Miller/The Republic)

The fight over Arizona's minimum wage is on the general election ballot as Proposition 206, at least for now.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge dismissed Friday a lawsuit challenging thousands of petitions gathered supporting the citizen ballot initiative to increase Arizona's minimum wage to $12 over the next four years. Opponents of the measure are appealing the ruling.

Jim Barton, the attorney representing the Fair Wages and Healthy Families campaign, said nothing can keep the minimum-wage effort off the ballot — save an appeal and higher court reversal of Friday's decision. But he said he’s confident “voters are going to get a chance to raise the minimum wage.”

The Fair Wages and Healthy Families campaign collected 120,000 more signatures than the 150,642 needed to qualify for the ballot.

The initiative proposes a gradual increase in the current $8.05 hourly minimum, with an initial hike to $10 by Jan. 1.

By 2020, the minimum wage would reach $12, with annual adjustments after that pegged to the Consumer Price Index.

In addition, it would require employers to offer mandatory sick leave: five days per year for companies with 15 or more employees and three days per year for those with fewer than 15.

Arizona voters in 2006 established a higher state minimum wage than required by federal law. But advocates for the ballot measure have argued that the current $8 an hour is not enough to support a family.

If the measure qualifies for the ballot, it will face opposition from business leaders, including the restaurant industry. The proposal attempts to address those concerns by establishing a $9 hourly base pay for tip workers.

Following an initial review by the Secretary of State's Office to eliminate signatures that weren't properly collected or recorded, the effort had 238,937 signatures that qualified for review by the counties' elections officials.

The Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association challenged the initiative, filing a lawsuit with Maricopa County Superior Court in July.

During court hearings earlier this month, the association argued that many of the people collecting signatures were not properly registered with the state, so their petitions should be invalidated.

The state requires paid and out-of-state petition circulators to register with the Secretary of State's Office. They must show they are 18 or older and have an address where they can be reached. Individuals who have been charged with a felony are also not allowed to circulate petitions for pay.

"It's a privilege to use out-of-state circulators for petitions," attorney Roopali Desai argued on behalf of the restaurant association. "There are many, many circulators who didn't register, so their petitions are invalid."

She said some registration forms appeared as if they were illegally altered after a circulator turned them in, claiming there were "some shenanigans and fraud involved."

But the ruling came down to a technicality: The law requires that signatures be challenged within five days of their submission to the Secretary of State's Office. After a thorough discussion of whether that meant business days or calendar days, Judge Joshua Rogers dismissed the case, saying the suit hadn't been filed in a timely manner.

Following Friday's ruling, Fair Wages and Healthy Families campaign Chairman Tomas Robles called the decision "a big victory for direct democracy and a step in the right direction for hardworking families in Arizona."

"We are looking forward to taking this initiative to the voters," he said.

It's not a guarantee yet.

Desai said they filed an appeal of the ruling Friday. She said they are confident in their interpretation of the law to be five working days, and said there is no court precedent that yet says otherwise. She said the plaintiffs won their arguments in other areas of the case involving petition circulators.

"They conceded on so many circulators that there were issues," Desai said. "To put something to the voters ... that clearly violated the very clear regulations that the Legislature set simply because they believe it was untimely would be inappropriate."