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High Court's Minimum Wage Ruling Draws Ire From Louisville Lawmakers

city hall
J. Tyler Franklin
Louisville City Hall

The Kentucky Supreme Court's decision to strike down Louisville’s minimum wage ordinance is reigniting local legislators' desire for more local control.

The Louisville Metro Council in 2014 approved an ordinance that paved the way for a gradual increase of the city's minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2017. Workers making minimum wage got a 50 cents pay bump earlier this year thanks to the ordinance, bringing the city-wide minimum wage to $8.25 an hour.

On Thursday, the state's high court ruled 6-1 that the city doesn’t have the authority to set a minimum wage above the level set by the state.

“In other words, what the statute makes legal, the Ordinance makes illegal and, thus, prohibits what the statute expressly permits,” Justice Bill Cunningham wrote in the opinion.

Council Democrats, along with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, responded to the ruling during a Thursday afternoon news conference at City Hall.

Council President David Yates, a District 25 Democrat, said he disagrees with the court's ruling but it's unlikely the city will challenge the decision. Instead, he said the ruling brings two issues to the forefront: Louisville's ability to govern itself and the need for a boosted minimum wage statewide.

Yates said Louisville's uniqueness emphasizes the need for local lawmakers to have the ability to pass legislation specifically focused on the city's needs.

"We need the ability to govern here locally," said Yates.

He said residents should push state lawmakers to fight in Frankfort for legislation that would give cities like Louisville greater ability to govern themselves.

Fischer said, simply, Louisville has different needs than the rest of the Commonwealth.

"Obviously, we think decisions are best made when they are closest to the people," he said.

Fischer has lobbied hard for a local option sales tax, an element of local control that would allow local governments to raise the sales tax by up to 1 percent if voters approve in local referenda. No fruit has come from that labor, however.

He said his administration and Democrats on the Metro Council will begin meeting with state lawmakers to decide if efforts should be focused on gaining more local control or if the push should be focused on boosting the statewide minimum wage.

The Democratic-led state House of Representatives passed a minimum wage hike during the last two legislative sessions, but it's been shot down in the Republican-led Senate.

The bill would have increased the minimum wage Kentucky businesses could pay employees from $7.25 to $10.10 over the course of three years

Fischer opposed a minimum wage hike to $10.10 an hour in 2014. His opposition was a factor in the boosted wage being capped at $9 an hour.

But on Thursday he said "a lot has changed since the vote a couple years ago."

"The economy has rebounded well for us locally, we've seen the sky did not fall when that new wage was put in place," he said.

Fischer declined to say what he'd consider an ideal minimum wage.

Council Republicans did not attend the news conference. Instead, the head of the nine member minority caucus -- all of whom voted against the minimum wage ordinance in 2014 -- issued an emailed statement in which he said he hoped the court's ruling "added clarity."

"My concerns regarding the Metro minimum wage ordinance were that it was unconstitutional, would hurt the youngest and most inexperienced workers and that it would give surrounding communities a leg up when trying to lure jobs," said Kevin Kramer, a District 11 Republican.

A top executive of Greater Louisville Inc, the city's chamber of commerce that opposed the original ordinance, also issued a statement praising the court's ruling.

"(Greater Louisville Inc.) has always been concerned with a patchwork of wage laws at the local level differing in our own region," said Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, chief operating officer of Greater Louisville Inc.

Fischer said he's hopeful any employer that's raised wages in accordance with the now defunct ordinance will keep the wages as they are and not revert back to the statewide pay scale.

"That would be a slap in the face toward their employees," he said.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.