PHOENIX — A judge has ruled that a 2016 law barring towns, cities and counties from requiring employers to provide additional employee benefits is unconstitutional.
The decision Wednesday from Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joshua Rogers said the law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey violates a voter-approved law known as the Voter Protection Act. That law forbids the Legislature from modifying voter-passed initiatives unless ¾ of the lawmakers approve and they “further the purposes” of the initiative.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and 32 Democratic lawmakers sued, arguing the 2016 law illegally overruled a 2006 initiative raising the state’s minimum wage and giving counties, cities and towns the right to enact higher wages or boost fringe benefits.
The law was another example of the Legislature trying to bar liberal-leaning municipalities from enacting laws they don’t like, but this time the law was rejected. Earlier this year, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld another law passed by the Legislature that penalizes cities that enact ordinances that conflict with state law.
“I think this ruling does a nice job of saying ‘well at least when it comes to wages and benefits, the municipalities have complete authority,'” said Jim Barton, the attorney that represented the union and the Democratic lawmaker. “I think in light of that (Supreme Court) ruling it’s really helpful to have this one come down.”
The attorney general argued that the 2006 law’s reference to benefits allowed different interpretations that gave the Legislature leeway to act. Rogers rejected that argument.
“The State ignores the obvious and naturally understood similarity between the ordinary meaning of “wages” and “benefits,” as well as the obvious and natural meaning seen within the broader context of a labor statute such as this, and instead assigns “benefits” an unnatural meaning based solely upon the eight preceding subparts of (the 2006 initiative) that effectively turns the canon on its head and defies common sense,” Rogers wrote.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Mark Brnovich, Mia Garcia, said the ruling was being reviews and had no immediate comment.
Republican House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who sponsored the law, said he was disappointed in the ruling and will advocate for an appeal.
“Our message has always been that it’s better to have a consistent policy across the state when it comes to business regulations, because a patchwork of regulations makes it more difficult to do business,” Mesnard said. “That was the motivation around the bill.
“We were trying to draw a line between wages and benefits — they’re not the same thing,” he said. “They’re forms of compensation, sure, but there’s all kinds of places where you can go when you’re talking benefits, whereas wages is a little more specific.”
Arizona voters last year passed another minimum wage increase that also included mandatory paid sick leave.
Barton said now that the 2016 law has been overturned, it’s likely some cities “are going to look at this as an opportunity to establish minimum benefits for their citizens.”