After spending half a million dollars to halt San Diego’s minimum wage hike by forcing it onto the June ballot, business groups might not spend much at all persuading voters not to approve it.

They didn’t change their minds on the policy – they still don’t like it. They just aren’t sure trying to win over voters will amount to anything but throwing good money after bad.

“I’m not sure there’s enough money to win,” said Sean Karafin, executive director of policy and economic research at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “People are assessing the chances of winning, and obviously that’s going to dictate where our resources go.”

The move to overturn the City Council’s decision – which would initially raise the minimum wage to $11.50, tie future increases to inflation beginning in 2019 and give workers five sick days per year – was financed by a committee called the Small Business Coalition. Its largest donors were the Chamber, statewide restaurant groups and national and local hotel associations. They spent $545,000 on the effort in 2014.

Now, the coalition is getting together to decide how much it should spend campaigning against the June measure.

Informing those talks are polls that suggest the measure is not only broadly popular, but that people aren’t really willing to change their minds on the issue.

An internal poll conducted by the Center on Policy Initiatives, a local liberal think tank, showed 63 percent of voters support the citywide increase. Perhaps more importantly, 47 percent of voters said they were strongly in favor of the measure, while just 24 percent were strongly against it.

Karafin said that’s consistent with the polling he’s seen: People like the idea of raising the minimum wage, and it’s hard to convince them otherwise.

That means waging a campaign to win over hearts and minds would cost a good bit more than the coalition spent to get the measure on the ballot in the first place.

Still, Ann Kinner, who as owner of Seabreeze Nautical Books and Charts in Point Loma was something of a public face against the wage hike back in 2014, said she was dismayed when she learned the coalition was considering letting the increase pass without a fight.

“It’s a disservice to those of us who stuck our necks out,” Kinner said. “We put in a lot of time and effort; to just drop it doesn’t sit right at all. I don’t recall any conversations that said we were going to get it on the ballot and just see what happens. Waiting two years, to see it go down the tubes? It makes no sense at all.”

There will likely be some funding to oppose the increase. It’s just not clear how much.

“There will be something,” said Jason Roe, a political consultant and spokesman for the coalition. “It remains to be seen if we’ll have enough to win.”

He said he expects to form a committee that could raise money for an opposition in the next few weeks.

Despite the discouraging polling, Chris Duggan, director of San Diego government affairs for the California Restaurant Association, said the minimum wage increase would hurt his organization’s members, and they won’t shy away from making that case to the public.

“How much we’ll spend – I don’t know,” he said. “But we’ll be in the media, educating the public no matter what.”

Even if the coalition fails to overturn the increase – or to even mount a substantive campaign to do so – it will have nonetheless managed to delay for nearly 20 months the series of wage increases outlined in the ordinance.

Another wrench for minimum wage opponents: California’s Service Employees International Union is currently working on two different statewide measures to increase the minimum wage to levels above what San Diego’s would be even if it wins. It’s expected that one of those two measures will end up on November’s ballot.

Roe said the coalition will have to consider the extent to which a state measure would obviate the importance of San Diego’s increase, but emphasized that there are other elements of the local measure – like the paid sick days – that aren’t part of what the state’s considering, so they’d still have reason to oppose it.

Councilman Todd Gloria, who was Council president when the increase passed and who emerged as its most outspoken champion, said he and other supporters are operating on the assumption that they’ll have a well-funded opposition over the next three months.

He acknowledged that the coalition’s decision to send the minimum wage increase to a public vote might have had an effect beyond the city’s minimum wage, too.

The referendum initiative capped a tense year between Council Democrats and the city’s business leaders.

With Gloria as its president, the City Council In September 2013 approved new land use restrictions for Barrio Logan that were opposed by the shipbuilding industry in the neighborhood. In November 2013, it voted to increase a fee charged to developers to help pay for low-income housing. In July 2014 it raised the minimum wage.

Business groups raised money to collect enough signatures to give voters a say on each of those decisions. Voters in June 2014 sided with business groups against the new Barrio Logan plan. The City Council in March 2014 undid its decision on the affordable housing fee, rather than take the issue to voters. The Small Business Coalition got the minimum wage increase to the ballot in October 2014.

Since then, the City Council – which still holds a Democratic majority, but has a new Council president in Sherri Lightner – has gone silent. Did the repeated success of challenging Council decisions with signature-gathering campaigns have a chilling effect on the Council, keeping it from even attempting to pursue a progressive agenda?

“There is a marked difference in the posture of the City Council since 2014,” Gloria said. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find bold, groundbreaking legislation that’s been initiated since that time.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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