Louisville's minimum wage law survives first court challenge, but more could be coming

Some Louisville workers will get a raise Wednesday after a state judge upheld the city's new minimum wage standards in the first of a series of legal challenges that could define how much power local governments have over private businesses.

The Louisville Metro Council's decision to raise the minimum wage does not conflict with state law, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman ruled. The decision, which could be appealed, clears the way for Louisville's minimum wage to increase 50 cents on Wednesday to $7.75 per hour. It is set to increase to $9 per hour by 2017.

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"The Metro Council and I took this step year to provide working families a higher minimum wage because we know that many struggle to pay for housing, food, clothing and medical care," Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said. "Today's favorable ruling will have a real impact on many Louisville families."

McDonald-Burkman dismissed arguments from the Kentucky Restaurant Association that the increase violates state law and would be too burdensome for business owners to implement.

"What is legal in one county may be illegal in another, such as indoor smoking and alcohol and fireworks sales," she wrote. "A business owner must comply with the laws and ordinances in the various locales in which it chooses to operate, even if variances exist."

An attorney for the Kentucky Restaurant Association did not immediately return a call requesting comment.

The decision comes weeks after Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear announced he would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for all executive branch state workers. That decision affects about 800 people and will cost taxpayers an additional $1.6 million per year.

Raising the minimum wage has become a priority for state and national Democrats following a deep recession that saw wages plummet and jobs disappear. But Democrats' efforts to raise the minimum wage statewide in Kentucky have been blocked by Senate Republicans, who argue the increase would place a burden on businesses and prevent them from hiring more people.

While Monday's ruling was a victory for Democrats, it could be a sign of defeat for another issue they care about: labor unions. After Democrats on the Louisville Metro Council voted to raise the minimum wage last year, county governments in more conservative parts of the state approved local laws that ban companies from requiring workers to join a labor union.

Republicans say the so-called "right-to-work" laws are crucial to help Kentucky attract jobs to the state, especially along the border of Tennessee, which already has such a law. But Jack Conway, Kentucky's Democratic attorney general who is running for governor, has already issued an opinion. Labor unions say right-to-work laws weaken their bargaining power and lead to lower wages. They have challenged the laws in court.