The Urban County Council could begin discussions as early as March on raising the minimum wage in Lexington and on passing an ordinance that would allow people to work in union shops without paying dues.
During a Tuesday work session, the council voted 14-0 to assign the minimum-wage issue to the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee.
Council member Amanda Bledsoe then made a separate motion to send the union legislation — referred to as right-to-work — to the same committee. Several Kentucky counties have recently passed right-to-work laws that, if upheld by the courts, would allow workers covered by a union contract to opt out of paying union dues or fees.
That vote passed 8-5, with Bill Farmer Jr. abstaining. Fred Brown did not vote.
Farmer also abstained from voting on the minimum-wage motion.
The Urban County Council is nonpartisan.
Kevin Stinnett, the chairman of the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee, cautioned the council that discussions on either issue can't begin in earnest until after council passes the budget, which typically happens in late June.
"We may be able to start discussions during the March (Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee) meeting," Stinnett said. But after March, the council's attention is focused on the budget. The budget committee doesn't meet while the council works on the budget.
The delay might also allow the courts to sort out whether cities or counties can address either issue.
A federal lawsuit has been filed challenging Hardin County's decision to implement legislation that unions say will hurt them. Several other Kentucky counties have passed ordinances allowing employees covered by contract to opt out of paying union dues.
Louisville recently passed a minimum wage increase that is likely to be challenged in the courts when the ordinance takes effect July 1. Louisville is the first city in Kentucky to raise the minimum wage beyond the federal $7.25 an hour. The new rate there will be $9 an hour.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who is a former CEO of Gray Construction, said during the November general election that he would be open to discussing raising the minimum wage, but he said he had reservations about Lexington raising the minimum wage if surrounding areas do not.
Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Gray, said after Tuesday's meeting that Gray believes the minimum wage issue should not be addressed by the city.
"The appropriate place to take this up is at the state or federal level," Straub said. "The mayor is on record as supporting an increase in the federal minimum wage."
Any legislation dealing with unions should wait until after a federal court case is decided, she said.
"We expect the courts to decide whether local governments can take up this issue," Straub said. "Until then, taking action may be questionable, but it's up to the council."
Debate during Tuesday's meeting was spirited but cordial.
Councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti made the motion to put the minimum wage issue in committee, pointing to income data that show many Fayette County workers are struggling. Mossotti cited U.S. Census Bureau statistics that showed 22.3 percent of full-time Lexington workers make less than $24,999 a year. According to a wage breakdown Mossotti provided to the council, about 6.8 percent of full-time workers in Fayette County make less than $14,999.
"I was shocked when I saw that," Mossotti said. "Fayette County has always been at the forefront of a lot of things. We did the smoking ban. We started out small and it went statewide. The same thing with the fairness ordinance."
Many council members applauded Mossotti for pushing the issue. But council member Ed Lane cautioned that if the city does increase the minimum wage, it could hurt workers, not help them.
"It may cause some people to lose jobs," Lane said. "Because whatever job they are doing is very basic and a higher rate could not be justified by an employer."
Many members of the council were against sending the union legislation to the budget committee because they felt that the courts would ultimately strike down previous Kentucky local government efforts to enact legislation.
"I don't want to seem close-minded," council member Jake Gibbs said after saying he opposed sending the issue to committee. "I'm a union member. And in union circles, right to work is a euphemism for right to work for less wages."
Vice Mayor Steve Kay said he, too, had concerns about sending the union issue to committee when the legality of local governments passing similar legislation is being decided by the courts.
"I believe that right to work is even more controversial than raising the minimum wage. And, in fact, some people would say that it has the exact opposite effect," Kay said, adding that union-limiting legislation can lead to a decrease in wages.
Lane countered that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has pushed for the legislation at the state level because the Chamber maintains that failing to have it puts Kentucky businesses at a disadvantage.
"We are competing ... with states that have a right-to-work law," Lane said.
Ultimately Kay, Gibbs, Angela Evans, Chris Ford and Shevawn Akers voted against sending the union issue to the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee.
Stinnett said after Tuesday's meeting that accurate data on the number of unions in Lexington, the number of unions that allow workers to be represented without paying dues, and accurate information on wages will be key to the debate moving forward.
"We have to have accurate information from all sides," Stinnett said.