Ballot battle over minimum wage intensifies in Colorado

Proponents, opponents become increasingly antagonistic

Patty Kupfer, campaign manager for Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, leads a group in delivering 200,000 signatures on July 25 to the Secretary of State’s Office to place a ballot question before voters that would gradually raise the minimum wage. Opponents – led by business groups – fear that the effort would lead to job losses and higher consumer prices. The divide has led to a contentious ballot battle. Enlargephoto

Peter Marcus/Durango Herald file

Patty Kupfer, campaign manager for Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, leads a group in delivering 200,000 signatures on July 25 to the Secretary of State’s Office to place a ballot question before voters that would gradually raise the minimum wage. Opponents – led by business groups – fear that the effort would lead to job losses and higher consumer prices. The divide has led to a contentious ballot battle.

DENVER – The ballot fight to gradually raise the minimum wage in Colorado has turned to political attacks, often overshadowing issues at the heart of the effort.

Proponents have accused the other side of hiding financial contributions from the public, fabricating studies and pummeling voters with false advertising.

Opponents have thrown their own jabs, similarly claiming that studies supported by proponents are misleading. They also allege that proponents have been unwilling to compromise, acted “hypocritically” by failing to pay workers $12 an hour, made the ballot with fraudulent signatures and are hiding a larger agenda that won’t stop at $12 an hour.

The latter is one point opponents and proponents agree on.

“One of the things they like to say is this is just the beginning and next they’re going to go for $15 an hour,” Patty Kupfer, campaign manager for Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, said of opponents. “That’s totally true.

“Anyone who cares about economic justice or fairness is investing in the states because that’s where all the fights are really happening.”

The initiative would gradually raise the minimum wage to $12 by 2020. The current minimum wage in Colorado is $8.31.

At the start of the campaign, proponents highlighted issues behind the effort, including how the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with the state’s increasing cost of living. A full-time minimum-wage worker makes about $17,000 per year, or $300 per week after taxes.

Supporters say raising the wage would boost job retention, as it would reduce employee turnover and increase productivity. They also point to benefits to the economy and health care system, while closing equality gaps.

Polling has the initiative passing with about 58 percent support.

In recent weeks, the conversation from both sides has turned antagonistic.

Proponents have been lifted by $2.3 million in contributions, largely coming from national unions and left-leaning special interests.

A $1 million ad buy is expected to begin running in the coming days.

Opponents have been buoyed by $636,884 in contributions, with money coming from large industries, such as hotel and lodging.

Proponents say opponents have raised much more than that, pointing to $2.3 million in advertising reservations, which has not fully appeared on financial disclosures. They called it a “mystery” stream of money that opponents are “hiding.”

Tyler Sandberg, a spokesman for Keep Colorado Working, acknowledged the expensive advertising reservations.

“It appears the union campaign knows as little about TV as they do about how small businesses operate,” Sandberg said. “It’s a reservation, not a buy. We reserved when rates were lower.”

Opponents in August also accused proponents of not paying workers $12 an hour to collect signatures to make the ballot, calling them “hypocrites.”

A review by The Durango Herald found that proponents in fact paid workers at least $12 an hour, sometimes more than $18 an hour, according to an amended filing to the secretary of state’s office.

As for the fraudulent signatures alleged by opponents, the issue has plagued several campaigns this election, stemming from a canvassing firm that circulated petitions.

Proponents submitted about 200,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office, so it’s likely they made the ballot, despite any fraudulent signatures. It takes 98,492 valid signatures to make the ballot.

Competing studies Another back-and-forth fight between the sides is related to competing studies.

Supporters of the effort point to research – conducted by the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research – that shows raising the minimum wage would not negatively impact employment, despite some employers saying they would have to cut jobs.

Proponents also point to a September study by the University of Denver which found that Amendment 70 would boost Colorado women and families in achieving economic self-sufficiency, raising incomes for approximately 290,000 women. Incomes would increase for 20 percent of all households in Colorado, including 200,000 households with children, mostly impacting households earning less than $60,000 annually, the study states.

The report was released by the Colorado Women’s College Collaboratory at the University of Denver, in partnership with The Women’s Foundation of Colorado.

Opponents, however, point to dueling research, which underscores that raising the wage would reduce potential employment in Colorado by 3.3 percent, eliminating more than 90,000 jobs, and decrease wage and salary incomes by as much as $3.9 billion per year.

Common Sense Policy Roundtable conducted the research, which describes itself as a “free-enterprise think tank” that is aligned with conservative and business interests.

But an independent study promoted by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, The Bell Policy Center and the Colorado Center on Law and Policy aimed at debunking Common Sense Policy Roundtable’s research.

The report found that it is difficult to accurately measure the impact raising the wage might have on jobs, as other factors, such as global competition, are difficult to assess.

“Some research reports moderate job losses associated with minimum-wage increases, some say there are no job losses, and some research even indicates there are increases in jobs associated with minimum-wage hikes,” the Colorado Fiscal Institute report states. “The lack of complete consensus on the impact of minimum-wage increases on employment creates a ripe environment for minimum-wage opponents to carefully select the research that shows the largest negative effect on jobs.”

Proponents point out that when the minimum wage went up in Colorado in 2007 by 33 percent, from $5.15 to $6.85, the Colorado economy added 71,200 jobs in the two years following the increase.

“It comes as no surprise that the union campaign, which peddled fraudulent signatures to the secretary of state, is now peddling an equally fraudulent economic study,” Sandberg said of the DU report. “Colorado’s minimum wage has increased 61 percent in the last 10 years, and another 44 percent increase will decimate small businesses, especially in rural areas.”

Kupfer equated the Common Sense Policy Roundtable study to climate change skeptics.

“You have all the body of research that shows that this is actually happening, and then you have a couple of outliers here who say we can’t connect this to human impact,” she said. “That’s what they found.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com