By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — After spearheading efforts to pass a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana, Orlando attorney John Morgan said Tuesday he is moving ahead with a ballot drive aimed at gradually raising Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Morgan said a group he leads has collected more than 120,000 petition signatures, far more than needed to trigger a Florida Supreme Court review of the proposed ballot wording. If the court approves the wording, backers of the proposal would ultimately need to submit 766,200 valid petition signatures to take the issue to voters in November 2020.
Morgan, the head of the firm Morgan & Morgan, said increasing the minimum wage would give people the right to “work with dignity” as he pointed to vast income inequality.
“Our belief is the single greatest issue for America and Florida today is a living wage,” he said during a news conference in Orlando.
But as in other parts of the country that have considered a $15 minimum wage, Morgan likely will run into opposition from business groups if the proposal goes on the 2020 ballot. The Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, for example, said they do not favor placing such a mandate on businesses.
James Miller, a spokesman of the Florida Retail Federation, said a higher minimum wage could lead to “difficult decisions” for business owners, including the possibility of reducing jobs.
“Businesses, focusing mainly on small businesses which make up around 95 percent of our membership, only have a finite amount of money they can allocate to salaries and still make a profit,” Miller said in an email Tuesday. “By forcing a retailer to pay an employee(s) more, you’re going to force that retailer to do one of two things to protect their bottom line, either pay the increased wages and pass those increased costs onto customers in the form of higher prices or pay select employees that wage and let others go altogether.”
Morgan last year formed a political committee, known as Florida for a Fair Wage, which had received about $478,000 from his law firm as of Dec. 31, finance reports show. The committee had spent nearly $476,000, with almost all of that money going to petition-related expenses.
Under the proposal, the state’s minimum wage would go to $10 an hour on Sept. 30, 2021 and increase by $1 each year until it hits $15 an hour on Sept. 30, 2026. The state’s minimum wage this year is $8.46 an hour.
“I think in the quiet of the night, fair people go, ‘There’s no way to live on $8 an hour,’ ” Morgan said.
Florida voters in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment that increases the minimum wage each year based on inflation. By comparison, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
But the Morgan proposal would go much further. The state Division of Elections website Tuesday did not list any petition signatures submitted by Florida for a Fair Wage, but Morgan said signatures will be mailed this week. A Supreme Court review is triggered by submission of 76,632 valid signatures.
During the news conference Tuesday, Morgan noted his experience with passing the medical-marijuana amendment, which narrowly failed in 2014 before getting overwhelming approval in 2016. He said it is better to propose such measures in presidential-election years, instead of in off-year elections.
“The good news is, I understand how to do this,” Morgan said.
Morgan said phasing in the higher minimum wage will help small businesses adjust, but he also said larger paychecks will help businesses retain employees longer. But business groups do not want employers to be required to pay higher wages.
“Nothing is more important to Florida’s business community than economic prosperity for all Floridians,” Edie Ousley, a spokeswoman for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said in an email Tuesday. “Rather than adding another new mandate on local businesses, we should come together to ensure there’s a universal path to prosperity through job training that creates $50,000 careers for the less than 4 percent of Floridians earning a minimum wage full time.”