Judge strikes down Miami Beach’s minimum wage ordinance

Miami Beach’s new minimum wage law, which aims to raise the mandatory citywide wage to $13.31 by 2021, was struck down in Miami-Dade circuit court Tuesday, setting the stage for an escalation in the legal showdown between Tallahassee and City Hall.

Florida Retail Federation, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and Florida Chamber of Commerce filed suit against the city in December over the city law, arguing that it is preempted by state law. Later, state Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a motion to intervene to defend the constitutionality of the state preemption law.

On Tuesday, Judge Peter Lopez ruled in favor of the alliance of the state and the statewide business groups, which had stated that the ordinance would be devastating for local businesses.

Miami Beach’s attorneys said they will appeal immediately.

The city attorneys fully expected a legal fight when the City Commission unanimously passed the ordinance in June 2016. The Beach’s legal team has argued that a 2004 constitutional amendment that set a state minimum wage higher than the federal wage allows municipalities to set their own minimums.

Last week, a few groups filed legal briefs in support of the city’s position, including a leading expert on Florida constitutional law. Sandy D’Alemberte, dean emeritus of the Florida State University College of Law, filed a brief stating that the 2004 amendment protects local governments’ authority to set their minimum wage, whether it’s higher or lower than the statewide rate.

On Tuesday, Robert Rosenwald, first assistant city attorney, said in a statement that the court “simply got it wrong.”

“It ignored controlling Florida Supreme Court precedent holding that when a prior statute conflicts with the will of the people expressed in a constitutional amendment, it is the people’s judgment that controls,” he said.

Rosenwald also said the city wants to bypass the appellate court and go straight to Tallahassee with the case.

“We will immediately appeal this adverse decision,” he said. “We will request that the Florida Supreme Court bypass the intermediate appellate court and step in immediately to reverse the trial court’s misreading of its precedent. Ultimately, whichever court hears our appeal first, we expect the attorney general and the special interest group plaintiffs to continue to fight, and so will we.”

Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers, decried the ruling in a statement Tuesday morning.

“The court’s ruling invalidating Miami Beach’s minimum wage ordinance — and upholding the legislature’s ban on cities’ addressing local needs for higher wages — is unfortunate and will hurt communities across the state,” she said. “ It also flies in the face of the opinion of leading constitutional experts, who filed a legal brief agreeing that the legislature’s ban was illegal.”

The ordinance and its ramifications lie at the intersection of policy and politics for Miami Beach and the whole state.

The legislation was first proposed by Mayor Philip Levine, a politically ambitious Democrat who championed its passage and has made it a central talking point as he explores a run for governor. He firmly positioned himself on the opposite side of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who will leave office due to term limits in 2018. Levine has taken aim at Scott and Bondi since the state intervened in the suit, and the mayor even took out radio ads in California last year to promote the Beach’s ordinance while Scott was there on a business recruiting trip.

In a statement Tuesday, Levine criticized the state for wanting to block the Beach’s law.

“While I am extremely disappointed in today’s ruling against Florida families, we expected that this case would ultimately end up before the Florida Supreme Court,” he said. “Our legal team is working on a swift appeal to ensure that the will of Floridians expressed through the 2004 state constitutional amendment on minimum wage is fully implemented.”

Politics aside, the ordinance comes at a time when the income gap between Miami-Dade’s richest and poorest is growing. Researchers suggest that high housing costs and stagnant wages are driving Americans out of South Florida — a theory bolstered by recent Census data.

Florida’s minimum wage went up from $8.05 to $8.10 an hour on Jan 1. Lauded by labor unions and derided by business interests, the Beach’s ordinance mandates the new citywide minimum to be set at $10.31 on Jan. 1, 2018, and then increase by a dollar a year until 2021. The effective date of 2018 was purposeful — attorneys anticipated a legal challenge and wanted to give time to sort it out.