TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday questioned a proposal to increase Florida's minimum wage through the constitutional amendment process, warning about effects on the restaurant industry.
DeSantis focused on the minimum wage proposal as he railed against policy-oriented constitutional amendments that he said put "handcuffs" on future legislation, as he opened an Associated Industries of Florida conference at the Augustus B. Turnbull III Florida State Conference Center in Tallahassee.
DeSantis, speaking in a closed-door meeting that his office streamed live on Facebook, pointed to part of the proposed minimum-wage amendment that would increase the amount of wages that restaurants would have to cover for tipped employees. He said it is "going to cause big, big upheavals for the restaurant industry. It just will."
"When you put that in the Constitution, we can't just go back and say, ‘Oh, let's tweak it, let's do that,' " DeSantis continued. "You literally would have to go back and do another constitutional amendment."
DeSantis has been a critic of the amendment process, which he argued Monday is a "cottage industry" for consultants and a "game" for the wealthy.
"If you're going to amend the Constitution it should be provisions similar to what we've seen with the federal Constitution," DeSantis said. "Term limits, which we have. Two-thirds (legislative majority) to raise taxes. Structural changes or things where you are protecting individual rights."
Orlando attorney John Morgan, who chairs and has largely bankrolled the political committee Florida For A Fair Wage, strongly disagreed with DeSantis' assessment of the process. Morgan's committee was on the verge Monday of submitting enough petition signatures to the state to get the minimum-wage measure on the November 2020 ballot, though it also needs the Florida Supreme Court to sign off on the proposal's wording.
"Had voters not weighed in (by passing a constitutional amendment) we would not have medical marijuana. The pharmaceutical industry would have ensured that. Felons would not have the right to vote," Morgan said in an email. "He (DeSantis) has a chance to have a fair minimum wage enacted in the next session. If it was fair, maybe I could agree. If it is eyewash I will know. If it is fair, I will drop my initiative."
Morgan also disputed DeSantis' assessment of amendment backers.
"This is not a game to me. It is a matter of morality and dignity," Morgan said. "Our democracy gives power to the people. Special interests don't like that. Tell the governor to tell me what he would propose. So far it is zero. He is a very smart guy. Show us something real."
Florida For A Fair Wage is seeking voter support to increase the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour on Sept. 30, 2021 and increase it by $1 each year until it hits $15 an hour on Sept. 30, 2026.
The state's minimum wage this year is $8.46 an hour, with tipped employees at $5.44 an hour. Restaurants receive what is known as a "tip credit" for the difference, which would remain at $3.02 an hour under the constitutional amendment. That would have the effect of gradually increasing the amount restaurants have to pay in wages.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association said on its website that most tipped employees make more than the proposed $15 minimum wage, and the proposed amendment would result in businesses shifting from tipped employees towards automation or employees at the fixed hourly rate.
"The restaurant industry is the industry that most often violates the wage laws," Morgan said in his email. "Sixty percent of restaurants fail in the first year. Eighty percent fail in four years. It is a bad business that can only work by cheating employees and paying slave wages, usually."
Florida For A Fair Wage had submitted 766,058 valid signatures as of early Monday afternoon, according to the state Division of Elections website. It needs to submit 766,200 valid signatures by a February deadline to be eligible for the ballot.
Another proposal that could go on the November 2020 ballot, meanwhile, would make it harder to amend the Constitution in the future. That proposal would require voters to support constitutional amendments twice -- rather than once -- for them to take effect.
DeSantis noted that Illinois, where he traveled in August to pitch Florida to financial-sector companies, is struggling financially, in part, because of pension requirements that have been in that state's Constitution since the 1970s.
"We can do good policy at the state level, but if the Constitution is being changed in ways that are going to create roadblocks for reform or prevent us from dealing with problems in the future, that's something that is a cause for concern," DeSantis said.
In June, DeSantis signed a controversial measure expected to make it harder for citizens' initiatives to reach the ballot. The law, in part, requires petition gatherers to register with the secretary of state and to be paid hourly, rather than based on the number of petitions collected.
"We'll see how this new law shakes out, and we'll see if there is anything more that we can do going forward," DeSantis said Monday.
News Service of Florida senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.