Is California’s minimum wage too low? Joe Sanberg thinks so — and he’s betting a hefty sum that voters agree with him

Our state’s base pay could rise to $18 under an initiative the affluent progressive activist Sanberg wants to put on the 2022 ballot. And it wouldn’t need to halt at $18, which is already 20 percent higher than the $15 minimum that will be imposed statewide in 2023 — the wage could continue to rise in parallel with cost-of-living increases, pushing California to $20 and higher in the years to come. A baseline that’s among the loftiest in America could climb even higher.

Sanberg told us that while $15 may seem generous relative to other states, in California it “doesn’t give people financial freedom” or cover “life’s basic needs.” That focus on putting more money in peoples’ pockets tracks with Sanberg’s dogged support for a state-level earned income tax credit. Echoing his sentiment that current wages are not enough was Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who backed Sanberg’s initiative in a statement, decrying that “millions of California workers are earning starvation wages at their full-time jobs.”

That Gonzalez is already on board naturally made us wonder who else will back Sanberg’s measure — particularly whether the blessing of a staunch union ally like Gonzalez means Sanberg could draw on the firepower of organized labor, which was instrumental in securing the $15-an-hour standard. Sanberg was coy but optimistic on that front, telling us he saw a natural alignment with labor and believed “we will earn their support.” That could mean a busy ballot for unions, who may also be playing defense over education and collective bargaining for public employees.

Pockets as deep as Sanberg’s make it likely he’ll secure the signatures to qualify — that, and the natural allure of a wage increase to passersby buttonholed by signature-gatherers. Pressed on how much he was willing to spend, Sanberg repeated that “this will be on the ballot.” And while the $15 deal Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2016 reflected his desire to avoid a ballot brawl, Sanberg said he won’t bend to a Sacramento compromise that boosts the minimum wage without also allowing it to rise with cost of living.

So, we could be hurtling toward a monumental ballot fight. Sanberg said he’ll roll out some private-sector endorsements, and he argued the measure has a built-in support base in the 5 million or so Californians earning minimum wage. But you can bet some well-resourced business groups will battle this one, invoking warnings about inflation and overburdened restaurants forced closing.

In other words: Expect a fight about the direction of California’s economy on a ballot that is shaping up to be enormously expensive.

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