More voters in Kentucky want local governments to set laws on wages and union membership rules rather than the have state legislature do it, according to the latest Bluegrass Poll.
Almost half — 46 percent — of 1,917 registered Kentucky voters said cities and counties should have the right to enact laws setting a minimum wage and ordinances that regulate whether workers at a unionized employer may opt out of paying union dues without losing their jobs, sometimes referred to as "right to work."
Only 36 percent of poll respondents said those decisions should be left to the state legislature. An additional 17 percent said they weren't sure who should decide.
The Bluegrass Poll, conducted by SurveyUSA on behalf of the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, surveyed voters by phone from March 3 to 8. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
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Republicans were slightly more likely to back local governments' efforts to address both issues. Fifty percent of Republicans preferred local control of the issues, compared to 43 percent of Democrats. Among those who considered themselves "strong" Republicans, 56 percent preferred local control, compared to 34 percent of those who labeled themselves "strong" Democrats.
Raising the minimum wage has become a key issue in the upcoming May primary for governor, and for city councils in some of the state's biggest cities.
The Bluegrass Poll found that 19 percent of registered voters said raising the minimum wage was their top issue in the governor's race, ranking higher than issues such as fixing the state's ailing teachers' pension system, right to work legislation, tax reform and education.
Lexington's Urban County Council will begin discussions on raising the minimum wage at Tuesday's meeting of the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee.
Backers of Lexington's push to raise the minimum wage said the latest poll results validated the council's decision to tackle the issue.
"This couldn't have come at a better time," said Jennifer Mossotti, an Urban County Council member who has pushed to raise the minimum wage above the current $7.25 an hour.
Regardless of what voters think, the courts ultimately will decide if state or local governments may tinker with the minimum wage or set rules regarding union membership dues.
Several counties, including Hardin, Warren and Simpson, have passed local ordinances that would allow people to work in union shops without having to pay union dues, prompting nine unions to challenge the ordinances in federal court this year.
Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, said he wasn't surprised the poll found that many people want local governments to handle union issues. Many people don't understand the issue because opponents of unions have pushed the issue as "right to work," he said.
"The people who are being polled don't understand what 'right to work' really is," Londrigan said. "If the poll says that this would lower wages, which is a demonstrated fact, they would oppose it."
Those who are pushing right to work laws argue that Kentucky is losing jobs to surrounding states that have had such laws on the books for decades.
The minimum wage issue also has made its way to court, in Louisville, which in December became the first city in Kentucky to raise the minimum wage.
A group of businesses, including the Kentucky Restaurant Association and Kentucky Retail Federation, sued the Louisville Metro Council on Feb. 13, challenging its authority to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour over three years.
In a legal opinion, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O'Connell told the council before it enacted the change that he thought it had the legal authority to do so. But Republican council members and Louisville businesses countered that only the state has the authority to set the minimum wage.
The Louisville lawsuit is in its early stages, said Brent Baughman, an attorney representing the business groups. The city has not filed a response to the lawsuit but will soon. A hearing date has not been set, he said.
The fight over both issues moved to city halls and county courthouses during the past 18 months because efforts to pass statewide laws raising the minimum wage and regulating who has to pay union dues have failed repeatedly in the Kentucky General Assembly.
During Tuesday's Urban County Council meeting, Mossotti said she planned to present data showing how many people in Lexington could benefit from raising the minimum wage. "I have not received a single negative phone call," Mossotti said.
Still, she expects some on the Urban County Council will use the Louisville legal challenge as a reason to put off a vote. But a court case is not a reason to delay action, she said.
"We have done other things that have been challenged — the smoking ban and the fairness ordinance," Mossotti said. (Lexington was the first city in Kentucky to approve a citywide smoking ban and to enact an ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.)
Mossotti said it could take more than a year for the Louisville case to work its way through the court system. People making minimum wage in Lexington can't wait that long, she said.
"We need to look at this on its merits," she said. "I strongly believe that this is the right thing to do. People have to be able to live. If you are working full-time and make minimum wage, you are making $15,000 a year. How can anyone live on $15,000 a year?"
The Urban County Council also has agreed to hold hearings on union legislation. The issue has been referred to the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee, which means hearings probablyl will have to wait until after the council passes a budget. That typically happens in late June.