DeWine: Ohio cities lack power to raise minimum wage

Opinion comes as union-backed groups push $15 an hour minimums in Cleveland and other cities.

Ohio’s city councils lack the legal authority to mandate a city-wide minimum wage higher than the state wage, according to an advisory opinion issued by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine this week.

The opinion could kneecap growing calls largely from union-backed groups for Cleveland and other cities to follow the examples of places such as Seattle and Los Angeles to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour. But backers of the proposal say they are undaunted.

DeWine’s opinion — non-legally binding guidance provided at the request of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters — notes the state’s minimum wage and the power to change it are enshrined in the state constitution.

“The Ohio Constitution does not grant a city authority to adopt an ordinance that sets the minimum wage paid by employers within the city’s boundaries at a rate that exceeds and conflicts with the statewide hourly minimum wage rate (in state law),” he said.

The group pushing for a wage hike in Cleveland responded this week they will continue to push for a city ordinance or ballot measure to raise the minimum wage, possibly setting the stage for a lawsuit that could either overrule DeWine — paving the way for other cities to follow suit — or strike down the measure.

And while labor groups and the left push hard for such proposals, business groups and the right oppose them just as vehemently.

Ohio Chamber of Commerce Director of Labor and Legal Affairs Don Boyd expressed concern Friday with “the practical implications of having varying minimum wages from city to city.”

“This would lead to unpredictability in labor, compliance and tax costs for employers throughout the state,” he said in an emailed statement. “An often overlooked impact of raising the minimum wage is that, beyond the increase in labor costs, the business taxes based off of wages skyrocket.”

The Ohio Restaurant Association in May released a study that found a $15 minimum wage in Cleveland would wipe out 2,500 jobs, most of which are held by women.

Area Democratic city leaders — including Dayton City Council — have called for an increase in the state or federal minimum wages, though they haven’t even considered a city-wide wage because they believe they lack the authority.

If given that power, many would still be reticent to make their employers pay more than in neighboring cities.

“I believe that the minimum wage needs to be raised,” said Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland. “I think it would be best for it to be raised at the national and state level because otherwise our difficulty is we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage compared to other cities.”

Ohio voters in 2006 approved a constitutional amendment that set the minimum wage at $6.85 per hour and indexed it to inflation. It’s currently $8.10 an hour, slightly higher than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.

Democrats in the state House and Senate have proposed bills to raise Ohio’s minimum wage further, but those have wilted in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Cincinnati in May voted to increase pay for city employees to $15 an hour, or $10.10 for part-timers. The pay raise went into effect July 1, raising the pay for more than 1,000 city workers and mandating those pay scales for employees paid under contracts with the city.

“We chose to take a lead by example approach,” said Bobbi Dillon, deputy chief of staff for Mayor John Cranley.

Cranley announced the pay hike at an event attended by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who has co-sponsored legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.

“The way we grow our economy is from the middle out, with rising incomes for all workers – not just the wealthiest few,” said Brown.

Ohio’s Republican Sen. Rob Portman, by contrast, supports raising the federal rate to match Ohio’s and indexing it to inflation.

Chris Kershner, vice president of public policy at the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, opposes mandating what employers pay their workers and says forcing higher wages means killing jobs.

“Since they’re being forced to spend a higher amount on each employee they will have to reduce their employee counts. They will restrict hiring,” he said. “Let the free market decide what the appropriate wage is.”