Amendment to raise minimum wage becomes a high-dollar battle
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A ballot proposal to raise the minimum wage in Colorado has turned into a multimillion-dollar battle pitting a coalition of labor unions and others against business organizations, including the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.

As of the most recent mandatory campaign finance reporting deadline in mid-September, the pro-Amendment 70 forces - which include the National Education Association and the Center for Popular Democracy Action Fund - had raised $2.3 million compared with the anti-70 business coalition's $636,000, including $200,000 from Hospitality Issues PAC.

Even with annual increases since 2006, the minimum wage lags way behind where it should be, proponents say, adding that an increase would "have net positive effects" and put more money into local economies.

Groups that oppose the Nov. 8 ballot measure, which would push the minimum wage in the state to $12 an hour by 2020, say it's a "one size fits all" initiative that doesn't consider differing economic conditions in Colorado. They argue that jobs would be lost as small businesses cut costs to account for the added expense. And still others against the measure argue that once again amending the state constitution is simply a bad idea.

"Big business can afford it," said Tyler Sandberg of the Keep Colorado Working coalition. "But small businesses, family-owned businesses in rural areas - they would be devastated."

If Amendment 70 passes, the minimum wage would jump from $8.31 to $9.30 per hour starting Jan. 1. Then it would go up 90 cents a year until it tops out at $12 at the beginning of 2020.

The amendment would alter the current Colorado minimum wage law that voters passed in 2006, increasing the wage then to $6.85 an hour, with annual adjustments by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to account for inflation.

Tim Hoover, of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, disputes claims that jobs would be lost if the measure passes. His institute is advocating for 70 as part of the Colorado Families for a Fair Wage coalition. A paper by institute economist Chris Stiffler found that the 2006 wage increase had a positive effect, Hoover said.

A countering study by economist Eric Fruits of the Common Sense Policy Roundtable predicts that 90,000 jobs will be lost if 70 passes.

Said Hoover, "The historical evidence does not line up. We actually experienced two years of job growth (after the 2006 increase)."

Hoover argued that modest increases in the wage each year benefit the economy.

"When Walmart workers get more money, they turn around and spend that money right in the state," he said. "They're not buying overseas investments. They're buying milk, clothing, gasoline and diapers."

The Regional Business Alliance is fighting the amendment, citing multiple reasons.

Rachel Beck, RBA's government affairs manager, said Friday that amending the constitution would lock in the proposed minimum wage structure.

"Then business and community members won't have the flexibility to make changes if unexpected consequences arise," she said.

She said many businesses in the Pikes Peak region still are recovering from the Great Recession and may not be able to afford the bump from $8.31 per hour to the eventual $12 wage.

"They will have to raise prices or they will reduce employee hours," Beck said. "Neither of those is very good for workers."

The business alliance also has members who don't want the state telling them how to run their enterprises, Beck said.

Colorado Families for a Fair Wage is dominated by labor unions and other worker organizations. Tim Markham, a campaign leader, is executive director of Colorado WINS, a union that represents more than 31,000 state employees.

"Our commitment is for all workers," Markham said of the union's participation. "We don't just work on behalf of our members. Our members want us involved in the broader fight."

Top contributors to Markham's coalition are The Fairness Project, a California nonprofit working to pass minimum-wage legislation in multiple states, and the National Education Association foundation. The Service Employees International Union also is pushing for 70's passage.