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Campaign Opposing San Diego Minimum Wage Hike Could Be Lackluster

Photo by Claire Trageser

Jason Roe, a spokesman for the San Diego Small Business Coalition, talks to San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Jerry Sanders at a news conference announcing the group has enough signatures to force a vote on the minimum wage increase, Sept. 16, 2014.

Aired 3/8/16 on KPBS News.

Business groups opposed to raising San Diego's minimum wage fought to get it on the June ballot, now they may not campaign against it.

After business groups successfully stalled an increase in San Diego's minimum wage, those same groups may be giving up their campaign to block the raise permanently.

The opponents of the wage hikes are deciding whether they "have the appetite" to spend money on a campaign to defeat the minimum wage measure on the June ballot, said Jason Roe, a political consultant running the anti-increase campaign. This was first reported last week by online news website Voice of San Diego.

"An issue like this takes significant resources to prevail," Roe told KPBS. "It's yet to be determined, but there are conversations and meetings going on right now to determine what level of engagement there will be."

Roe said he is unsure if the coalition of business groups opposed to raising the minimum wage can win. He pointed to polling that shows voters approve of the wage increase.

"The question is, can we move numbers enough to prevail?'" he said.

Two polls paid for by the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council found that 63 percent of likely June voters approve of the minimum wage increase. Nearly half of those polled said they strongly approved of the increase. The polls were done last year, in March and October.

So far, two groups have filed with the San Diego City Clerk's Office to campaign for the increase, and no one has filed to campaign against.

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Here's a recap of how San Diego got to this point:

The City Council passed a measure in July 2014 that would raise the minimum wage gradually to $11.50 an hour by 2017 and give five paid sick days a year. In 2019, wages would rise based on inflation.

San Diego's minimum wage was $9 an hour but went up to $10 an hour in January under state law.

A group of business organizations, including the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the California Restaurant Association, funded a referendum campaign to block the wage increase unless it was approved by voters this June.

That meant minimum-wage workers did not see their pay increase until Jan. 1 of this year, when a state increase of the minimum wage took effect.

The business coalition spent more than $500,000 to get the measure on the ballot. But Roe said it would cost even more to campaign against the wage increase. One citywide mailer costs $100,000, he said, while TV ads cost $800,000 to $1 million.

"It depends on if we have the resources," he said.

He also pointed to a statewide ballot measure in November that would raise the minimum wage beyond $11.50 an hour.

"Do we want to spend significant resources and then have the state preempt what we do here?" Roe said.

But, he said, even if a campaign isn't mounted, the referendum forcing the wage increase onto the ballot was worth it.

"As we said at the time, we wanted to give voters a say. We wanted to force a conversation about what the minimum wage increase does, that it doesn’t benefit the people it claims to help," Roe said.

He said even if business groups don't campaign against the increase, "it’s on the ballot, so that conversation is going to take place regardless of the level of resources we invest."

City Councilman Todd Gloria, who drafted the wage increase measure and is one of its most vocal supporters, said he "isn't buying it" that business groups will sit the campaign out.

During the signature gathering process, Gloria said, "The tactics that the opponents of the minimum wage increase used were so deceptive and dishonest that I'm not believing this line that they're not going to mount a fight. It would be keeping in their past practices to say that they're not but actually move forward with an aggressive campaign."

If pay hike proponents "took them at their word" and didn't work to reach voters, "it's possible we could get swamped with out-of-town anonymous cash and end up losing," Gloria said.

Roe said he did not want to comment on Gloria's accusation.

Gloria said he plans to campaign vigorously for the measure, regardless of what opponents do. He pointed out that the June ballot will have many measures on it, and that referendum ballot questions always come last on the ballot.

"Voters are going to have to get to the bottom to vote on this measure," he said. "But I believe they will."

Gloria said even if there are state measures to raise the minimum wage even more, he'll fight for San Diego's increase.

"There's no question this is going to be on the ballot, while what's happening at the state remains unclear," he said. "In the meantime, San Diegans need a raise, so we have to push for this."

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