Premature Post-Mortem 

Is the living wage issue dead? Not likely.

“Living Wage Dead,” proclaimed the Missoulian headline Wednesday morning after Election Day, insinuating that this citizen-led effort, which was largely responsible for the election’s unexpectedly big voter turnout, would now disappear quietly into the woodwork. And while it’s foolish to read too much meaning into the journalistic shorthand of headlines, rumors of the living wage’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, this particular initiative was defeated at the polls by a 448-vote margin, but the concept of paying workers a wage that doesn’t relegate them to a life of poverty or dependence on public assistance is still very much alive and well in the Garden City.

First, it’s useful to look at where the living wage initiative did succeed. In a year with no national, state, county or other citywide races or ballot initiatives, it is widely believed by both supporters and opponents alike that the living wage played a major factor in the 40 percent citywide turnout rate of Missoula’s registered voters, which represents a higher percentage than 1997’s bitterly contentious off-year election. Citywide, the initiative garnered 48 percent of the vote, hardly a landslide defeat.

“We do feel that we put living wage on the lips of every person in Missoula,” says Anita Anderson, co-chair for the Missoula Coalition for the Living Wage. “Whether you were for it or against it, everyone was talking living wage.”

New voter registration and turnout records were also set in the University area, where a 30 percent student turnout rate in Precinct 52 (populated exclusively by students) smashed the previous record set back in 1995. The Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) and Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) estimate that more than 44 percent of the students who registered to vote in 1999 in Precinct 52 eventually cast a ballot in this election. Student support for the living wage was clearly evident, with 67 percent of the students in the precinct voting in favor of the living wage.

The geographic breakdown of where else the initiative succeeded and failed is also telling. According to Adam Glickman of the Missoula New Party and figures provided by the Missoula County Elections Office, the living wage initiative won virtually every low-income and working class neighborhood in the city, with particularly strong showings on Missoula’s Northside, as well as in the well-to-do University area neighborhood. The initiative failed big in the more affluent neighborhoods of Lincoln Hills, South Hills, the Upper Rattlesnake and Grant Creek. Interestingly, in a ward-by-ward breakdown, three wards voted in favor of the living wage, three voted against it.

More importantly, says Glickman, even a defeated living wage initiative has helped set the agenda for the next City Council, especially on the issues of future tax subsidies and economic development.

“We’re not going away,” says Glickman. “A 48 percent vote in favor [of the living wage] is a clear mandate that the people of Missoula want it.” And as Ward One Councilmember Lois Herbig noted, Missoula may just get out of the business of providing tax subsidies to incoming businesses altogether.

In fact, many in the Living Wage Coalition say that now is the time to take Mayor Mike Kadas at his word. Several months ago, Kadas came out publicly against the initiative, arguing that while he supports the concept of a living wage—in February he cast the deciding vote in favor of a non-binding living wage resolution—the language in this initiative was vague enough that it would have hog-tied the city in all its financial dealings, costing taxpayers an estimated $137,500 annually, and leading to the cancellation of some city services, such as its janitorial contract with Opportunity Resources.

“I believe that was a ruse, and in 39 other communities that have passed a living wage language it has never caused a problem,” Anderson argues. “The mayor’s office and our city attorney had the language of the initiative before we put it on the ballot. They had an opportunity to go over the language and make changes before we ever put it to a vote.”

“They simply throw rocks at this initiative as being imperfect,” said University of Montana Professor Paul Haber, at a recent press conference on the economic implications of enacting a living wage ordinance. “If one is going to argue that the living wage initiative is not good policy, I believe they are morally obligated to put forward alternatives that can work better to do what we must do, namely, to address the unfair treatment of the working poor.”

Last week, Ward Two councilmember and living wage advocate Jim McGrath referred the living wage issue to City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee, which he chairs. McGrath said Monday night that it will likely be weeks before a new ordinance is drafted or the issue is even discussed in committee.

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