EDITORIAL: One-size vital minimum wage can’t fit all of Colorado — vote ‘no’ on Amendment 70


There’s one thing that’s become crystal clear in Colorado over the past several years: When it comes to economic forces, this is anything but a one-size-fits-all state.

The average metro-area apartment rent has hit a staggering $1,500 a month, according to analysts. Meanwhile, Pueblo residents can pretty much snag a 3-bedroom house for less than half of that kind of rent.

Disparities like that are common in a state that’s home to tony ski resorts, bustling urban Meccas and small towns on the plains on the verge of collapse.

Given the vast differences in job markets, per-capita spending and cost of living — sometimes only tens of miles apart — it makes no sense to create a single minimum wage law that leaves no room for adjustment.

To be clear, we’re staunch supporters of minimum wage laws, just not this one.

We firmly believe that too many businesses, especially small businesses, balance their dubious entrepreneurial acumen — or simply economic hard times — on the backs of their employees. It doesn’t matter where you live, human time and labor has a bottom-line value, and that value is easily abused by employers. When the price of electricity goes up, no business calls the power company to inform them that, “Hey, times are tough right now. Sales are down, so I can’t pay the increase you’re asking for. Take it or leave it.”

They turn out your lights. If a doughnut maker is hit with a tripled-price-hike in fryer oil, the owner must eat all or part of the increase or pass it on to customers.

But too many business owners don’t see human toil the same way. It often works to their advantage because there are generally more people who want work than those offering it.

That’s why minimum wage laws are critical. The law must protect workers from businesses that would exploit market economics to their benefit. In many small towns, it’s akin to indentured servitude.

Many business owners who fight against raises in the minimum wage say they just can’t afford to pay it. If your shop or service depends on virtually stealing wages from your employees, you have a problem, not a business.

Many argue that minimum wage jobs are for entry level workers — teens. That doesn’t explain why there are so many adults trapped in these low-wage, full-time jobs, that don’t hire kids.

All labor must have minimum value. But that value is vastly different across the state, relative to the cost of living. Colorado’s current minimum wage of $8.31 would have provided a lavish life in the early 1960s. Now? A kid scooping ice cream 10 hours a week at minimum wage can barely get a tank of gas and a burger out of the deal.

Amendment 70 doesn’t take the hugely different economic conditions of the state into account, and instead, it creates an average value for labor that in our opinion may be too high in some areas and far too low in others. Good luck trying to hire someone in Denver for the current minimum wage. Amendment 70 asks to raise that wage statewide to $9.30 beginning in January, and the rate would rise $0.90 a year until 2020, capping out at $12 an hour.

The cost of living in Denver may be critically higher than what it is now in four years, and this constitutional amendment would preclude lawmakers from doing anything about it. And that $12 an hour imposed on places such as Karval, Trinidad and Limon may make many businesses untenable, not because they’re poorly managed, but because the region is too sparsely populated or economically starved to allow it.

Instead, either an initiative or referendum should allow cities and counties to set their own minimum wages, even if they have to be sanctioned by the state. Or, the state could raise minimum wages according to zones based on economic criteria.

As vital as minimum wage laws are, they must work for employees and employers by being based on reliable local market forces. Amendment 70 doesn’t do that. Vote no and lobby your lawmaker to create a workable, scalable plan for the state.