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Judge Squashes Effort to Revive D.C. Minimum Wage Initiative

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The move stops a vote on Initiative 77 from appearing on a spring ballot

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A torrid effort to revive Initiative 77 — a ballot measure that would gradually raise minimum wage for tipped workers in the District — fell flat yesterday when a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that a referendum to reintroduce the law to voters in the spring was invalid.

Despite the work of petitioners to gather more than 25,000 signatures in a week, judge Neal E. Kravitz cited a procedural mistake by the D.C. Board of Elections to smother new life for a law that was passed by voters in June and repealed by the D.C. City Council in October.

The elections board did not post public notice for a hearing on the referendum far enough in advance, Kravitz found, dooming the signature-gathering process from the start. The Washington Post reports that the elections board submitted notice of a hearing on Nov. 1, but it didn’t publish until the day of the hearing on Nov. 9.

This week’s ruling came as organizers were handing over boxes full of signatures. Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national group advocating for improved wages in the service industry, reportedly put up $200,000 to sponsor signature gatherers in D.C.

Voters passed Initiative 77 in June with a 56 percent majority, but the D.C. City Council blocked it with an 8-to-5 vote in October, effectively siding with mayor Muriel Bowser and restaurant industry backers who argued that phasing out lower wages for tipped workers would raise operating costs for restaurants, slash tips, and ultimately put many front of the house employees out of a job.

Shortly thereafter, a group of activists concerned about the council’s power to overrule voters organized into a group called, “Save Our Vote, No Repeal of I77.”

The standard minimum wage in D.C. is $13.25 per hour, but that figure drops to $3.89 an hour for tipped workers. Employers are supposed to make up the difference for service workers if gratuities don’t close the gap. Critics of tipping argue that it reinforces misogyny, racism, and classism.