The House of Representatives made quick work of two major labor-backed bills Tuesday, getting 51-46 votes to send over to the Senate an increase in the minimum wage to $12 by 2019, and institute paid sick and safe leave for the vast majority of employers in Washington state.
Both votes were on party lines, with House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen absent. Sen. Linda Evans Partlette, R-Wenatchee, said the proposals face a “chilly reception” upon arriving in the upper chamber, indicative of the slim chance they have at passing.
That’s most likely the point. Setting aside the policy arguments on the proposals, Democrats in the Legislature want to pressure Republicans in the Senate over passing the legislation this year, or potentially facing it on the ballots in 2016. A minimum wage hike last year didn’t make it out of the House before cutoff, but the issue has come back stronger than ever with labor union support, both on a national level and in Olympia.
Washington already has the nation’s highest minimum wage at $9.47 an hour, and further increases are mandated annually by statute because they’re tied to inflation adjustments. But proponents have argued that they haven’t kept pace with the rising costs of living in Washington, particularly in the rapidly developing urban areas.
Step outside the Puget Sound region and you’ll hear a different story, and that’s largely what’s driving the opposition’s argument – a statewide minimum wage increase of that size is a blunt instrument for dealing with cost growths in larger counties, particularly for border counties in rural areas whose businesses would have to compete with lower minimum wages in Oregon or Idaho.
The argument has been going back and forth between Republicans and Democrats – as well as business representatives, labor unions, and workers – in the House since the start of the legislative session. How much further it advances, including whether it will get a hearing in the Senate, is up in the air. Working Washington, a labor group that’s been a strong proponent of both minimum wage and sick-and-safe leave, has put out a call to action March 12 to rally supporters for the proposals in the Senate. The group called the approval in the House “just the beginning.”
“Workers are rising up, speaking out and turning the tide against income inequality,” said Sejal Parikh, the group’s executive director. “We’ve won overwhelming public support, and now we’re beginning to see things change in the Legislature, too.”
For being two key pieces of legislation for House Democrats this year, House Speaker Frank Chopp didn’t dwell on their debates any longer than necessary during Tuesday’s floor hearing. Democrats fended off Republican attempts to amend both pieces of legislation.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the minimum standards for paid sick leave, which is legislation she introduced, are needed tools to fight back against income inequality in Washington state.
“We need an economy that works for everyone,” Jinkins said. “Not just the wealthy few.”
Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, fired a shot at the businesses groups who have lined up against the proposed increases and the paid-sick leave requirement.
“If you think paid sick leave will kill small businesses, then you don’t know small business,” Peterson said.
Indeed, the Association of Washington Business put out a call to its supporters to contact members of the House Tuesday and oppose the bills, arguing the minimum wage hike is a Seattle-centric policy that wouldn’t work in rural areas whose economies aren’t humming quite as strongly right now, and that the minimum wage is intended to be for entry-level workers and therefore should remain low.
Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, was again the most vocal opponent of the minimum wage increase on the floor, stating that it was “anti-science” and asking why Democrats would support having different prevailing wage standards among various counties, but support a blanket increase in the minimum wage.
The speech seemed to be intended to provoke a response from Democrats and groups like Working Washington, which has spent much of the last month criticizing him for a similarly strong-worded assault on the policies – and their proponents – in a House Labor Committee hearing.
“This bill is a long-run consequence of economic illiteracy,” Manweller said. “We have replaced what works with what sounds good.”
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