LANSING, Michigan — Michigan's election board on Thursday nixed a voter-initiated proposal to raise the minimum wage, ruling that organizers did not collect enough valid voter signatures to qualify.
The 3-1 vote against certifying the minimum wage drive means lawmakers' approval in May of smaller increases in the hourly wage likely will remain, though advocates of a bigger raise did not rule out an appeal. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the law gradually increasing the wage from $7.40 to $9.25 an hour — and repealing the law the ballot drive sought to amend — just before Raise Michigan submitted 320,000 petition signatures to raise the minimum to $10.10 over time.
The law and the proposal also build in annual inflationary wage increase down the line.
Two Republicans and one Democrat on the Board of State Canvassers found that Raise Michigan was about 3,900 valid signatures short of the 258,000 needed. The group had turned in nearly 320,000 signatures, but many tens of thousands were tossed because of duplicates, unregistered voters and other issues.
The board's staff at the secretary of state's office initially estimated that Raise Michigan — a coalition of labor interests and community organizers led by a Democratic county chairman — collected about 1,700 more signatures than needed. But once the board accounted for duplicates identified by a restaurant-backed group opposing the proposal, it disqualified another 5,600.
"I want to keep fraudulent signatures out of the mix," said Colleen Pero, the board's Republican chairwoman.
Julie Matuzak, a Democrat who favored certifying the initiative, echoed complaints lodged by Raise Michigan's attorney that the board improperly allowed the opposition to file challenges to duplicates at the last minute.
"We had a deadline. I think deadlines mean something. I believe this challenge was not filed in a timely manner," she said.
The board did not weigh in on the separate contention — pressed by the restaurant group People Protecting Michigan Jobs and Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette's office — that the ballot question is moot since legislators thwarted its advance by repealing the law that the advocates tried to change.
"It was clear that the fix was in early," said Frank Houston, treasurer of Raise Michigan, who said the group may file a lawsuit soon.
Democrats had hoped the minimum wage ballot issue would help drive their voters to the polls for November's gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and legislative elections while ultimately giving low-wage workers a bigger raise than what Democratic and Republican lawmakers negotiated a couple months ago.
Bars and restaurants have expressed concern in particular that the proposal would make Michigan's $2.65 minimum wage for tipped employees the same as it is for other workers. State law requires businesses to ensure tipped employees still make at least the $7.40 hourly minimum wage.
The law signed in May increases the wage for workers who get tips to $3.52.
"We'd be the only state east of the Mississippi River not to have the tipped credit," Justin Winslow, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, said the ballot initiative. "It's bad for business. It definitely doesn't put an open for business sign out for Michigan."
Also Thursday, the board approved a possible third wolf-hunting measure for the statewide ballot, voting 4-0 to certify the proposed law that could make moot two wolf-hunting referendums on the November statewide ballot. The measure would allow the Legislature or the appointed Natural Resources Commission to designate a species as game that could be hunted.
The Republican-led Legislature is expected to approve the law in August. If it does not act, the proposal will go to voters.
Michigan last year held its first wolf hunt since the animal was placed on the endangered species list nearly 40 years ago. Opponents of wolf hunting have collected enough signatures to ask voters to repeal two 2013 laws that cleared the way for the first hunt and possibly more.
"Legislators need to trust the voters who put them in office by allowing a fair vote of the people on this initiative," said Jill Fritz, director of Keep Michigan Wolves Protected.