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Want to vote on raising California’s minimum wage? Judge says not until 2024

Fast-food workers protest for a $15 dollar hourly minimum wage outside a McDonald's restaurant in East Los Angeles on March 12, 2021. California voters will get the chance in November to increase the wage even higher.
Damian Dovarganes
Fast-food workers protest for a $15 dollar hourly minimum wage outside a McDonald's restaurant in East Los Angeles on March 12, 2021. California voters will get the chance in November to increase the wage even higher.

A judge rules that a proposition to raise the California minimum wage to $18 an hour can’t go before voters until 2024. The same judge gave backers of recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom more time to qualify, but in this case he backed the Secretary of State, who said proponents missed a key deadline to qualify in time for this November.

Californians still won’t get a chance to vote on a minimum wage hike this November, after a judge ruled late Friday that the campaign was at fault for missing a key deadline to get the measure on the ballot.

Proponents, including investor and anti-poverty advocate Joe Sanberg, went to court to try to force Secretary of State Shirley Weber’s office to place the initiative onto this November’s ballot. If approved by voters, it would raise the state minimum wage to $16 an hour next year and $18 by 2025.

But Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James P. Arguelles ruled that Weber acted properly in enforcing a June 30 deadline for counties to verify signatures for this November’s ballot.

The minimum wage campaign argued that Weber’s office confused county election officials because she told them they had until July 13 to finish the count, based on the requirement that counties get 30 working days for signature verification after campaigns turn in their petitions.

Proponents collected 1 million signatures, but didn’t turn in signatures until May, Weber’s office said, making them late to start the clock. By the June 30 deadline to qualify for this November’s ballot, several counties had not finished verifying signatures and the campaign fell short. Seven other propositions did make the ballot this November.

The minimum wage measure has since been cleared for the November 2024 ballot, after county elections offices finished verifying enough signatures this month. 

Business groups have opposed the measure. On Thursday, an attorney representing the California Restaurant Association and the California Business Roundtable wrote Arguelles objecting to the effort to put the measure on this November’s ballot because it would force them to “hastily commence a campaign against the initiative.”

“Our television airwaves are already seeing campaign ads for and against initiative measures that have properly qualified for the ballot,” the attorney, Thomas Hiltachk, wrote. “While petitioner, using his personal fortune, might be able to ramp up a campaign, opponents of this initiative will have an impossible challenge in front of them.”

Arguelles is the same judge who extended the signature-gathering deadline by four months during the pandemic in 2020 for proponents of recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom, giving them enough time to trigger last year’s unsuccessful election.

But in this case, Arguelles refused to give proponents two more weeks. In a tentative ruling before a court hearing, he wrote that the minimum wage proponents’ argument that the pandemic slowed down their signature-gathering efforts was “unpersuasive.” The judge also agreed with Weber’s office that putting a new initiative on the ballot now would “interfere substantially” with conducting the upcoming election.

“The burden was on Sanberg (and all others proposing statutory initiatives) to conform to the June 30 deadline if he wished to place the initiative on the November 2022 ballot,” Arguelles wrote. “Sanberg’s failure to do so did not somehow reallocate the burden to Weber.”

In a statement after the ruling, Sanberg and other proponents slammed the judge’s decision as a “gross double standard,” saying that while Arguelles “saw fit to offer right-wing extremists” more time “to recall our governor, he declined to give voters an opportunity to pass a measure that would lift working people out of poverty.”

Proponents called on Weber to put the measure on the ballot voluntarily, joined progressives in urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to act and vowed to go to the Legislature when it reconvenes Aug. 1, though it’s too late for lawmakers to put a measure on the November ballot.

“Workers cannot wait another two years for a raise,” Sanberg, U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragán and UNITE HERE Local 11 Co-president Ada Briceño said in the joint statement.

Sanberg announced the proposition campaign last December and poured $10 million into signature-gathering. He said the campaign did the best it could to gather signatures quickly during the pandemic. Last week, he and other proponents sued to force it onto this year’s ballot, arguing a vote in two years would come too late to make the measure’s wage hikes to $16 next year and $17 in 2024 go into effect.

Under an inflation-triggered provision in state law, California’s minimum wage, already the nation’s highest, is scheduled to rise in January to $15.50 from $15 for most businesses and $14 for smaller employers.

Given that about a third of California’s private-sector employees are covered by dozens of local minimum wage ordinances that are higher than the state’s, the measure would result in raises for about five million workers, a UC Berkeley economist has found.

“We here are trying to prevent catastrophic injury to over five million Californians in the form of two years of lost wages,” Sanberg told CalMatters Thursday. “Over a million Californians signed the petition. Our objective is implementing the will of the people.”

Weber’s office has declined to comment on the litigation. In court filings, Weber said it was the campaign’s fault for turning in signatures too late to give the counties enough time to verify signatures. “It was their own decision to begin the signature gathering process late in the game,” attorneys for her office wrote.

At issue were what proponents called two “competing” deadlines enforced by Weber’s office for counties to verify signatures.

To qualify a ballot measure for any election, counties get 30 business days to verify signatures after they’re turned in. Based on when the minimum wage ballot proponents submitted their petitions, that deadline was July 13, Weber’s office told the counties.

But to make it specifically onto this November’s ballot, the cutoff to verify signatures was June 30 — a deadline also listed on the Secretary of State’s public guide for ballot measure proponents. By that day, not enough counties had finished the verification process to put the campaign over the 685,534 signatures needed to qualify. That threshold was reached a week later after more counties turned in signature numbers.

In his suit, Sanberg accused Weber’s office of confusing county officials by telling them the July 13 deadline and not the June 30 one. The campaign this week released a statement from San Mateo County’s chief elections officer, Mark Church, that “there was a misunderstanding about the deadline for validating signatures.”

The campaign was short more than 77,000 verified signatures on the June 30 deadline, but the Secretary of State was missing reports from several larger counties, including San Mateo. If a few more counties had verified signatures in time, the measure would have qualified for this November.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.