John Myers
March 22, 2016

State lawmakers now face a political ultimatum over California’s minimum wage: quickly take action to boost it above the current $10 an hour, or stand aside for a fall campaign in which voters are urged to do it themselves.

State elections officials announced Tuesday that an initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next five years has qualified for the Nov. 8 statewide ballot. Championed by a union representing healthcare workers, the proposal would gradually ratchet the wage up by a dollar a year through 2021 and impose future increases with inflation.

“It’s the right time for this,” said Steve Trossman of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West.

The current statewide $10-an-hour minimum wage kicked in on Jan. 1, boosting the take-home pay of some 3.3 million Californians, according to a study by UC Berkeley labor researchers. Leaders of the healthcare workers union argue it’s still not enough.

“If you think about trying to live on less than $21,000 a year, it’s pretty hard to get by on that,” Trossman said.

The union’s successful drive to collect 423,236 valid voter signatures now shifts the focus to Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers who hope to broker a truce between liberal activists and organized labor on one side, and conservative groups and business owners on the other.

“It won’t be easy,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said.

That a compromise is an option at this point in the election season is novel. For more than four decades, state election law didn’t allow a ballot initiative to be withdrawn once voter signatures were submitted. That law was revamped in 2014 to allow lawmakers one final chance to satisfy the demands of an initiative’s proponents with the hope that more sensible and balanced public policy would be drafted.

“I think that the initiative process can sometimes be a very blunt instrument,” De León said.

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