Think of our state legislature as a spaghetti Western. Right now, we’re at the stage where everyone squints at each other for a long, long time before something happens.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s hand inched toward his holster Tuesday with his annual state-of-the state speech. The governor said he supports an initiative filed Monday to raise the state’s minimum wage to $13.50 an hour across four years beginning in 2017—and that he supports requiring paid sick leave for private-sector workers. Washington’s minim wage is currently $9.47 an hour. Seattle and SeaTac are phasing in a $15-an hour minimum wage, while Tacoma is phasing in a $12-an-hour wage.
Meanwhile, the governor noted that Washington ranks among the top five states in job growth and leads the nation in gross domestic product growth. "The problem," he said, "is most workers are not sharing in the fruits of their own productivity... If you work 40 hours a week, you deserve a wage that puts a roof over your head and food on the table."
That segued into the biggest surprise in Inslee’s speech: the “state investment board.” Already, the board manages 17 retirement funds for public employees across the state and currently votes as a shareholder against executive pay packages that do not align with corporations’ financial performances. Inslee announced today that he's asked the board to use its votes to reduce the widening pay gap between CEOs and their workers. That gap is 300-to-1 today compared to 20-to-1 in 1965, he said.
The rest of his speech held no surprises.
Inslee pushed his proposal to raise rookie teachers’ annual salaries to $40,000 this session. He also pushed his plan to give the rest of the state’s teachers a one percent pay raise in 2016 as a baby step toward tackling the vast education budgeting and pay problems that the legislature is mostly putting off until the 2017 session. At present, the Washington State Supreme Court is fining the legislature $100,000 a day for dragging its feet for three years on this matter.
So far, Democrats have ranged from cool to lukewarm on Inslee’s 2016 teachers pay plan. That's due to concerns about a short session and a complicated long-range approach to solving the McCleary problem. GOP legislators are ice cold because Inslee’s plan needs four tax breaks closed to finance it, and the GOP equates closing tax breaks to raising taxes.
Inslee’s speech also cited his order to Washington’s Department of Ecology to put together regulations by this summer to put a cap of 100,000 metric tons on carbon emissions a year from any air-polluting site. The effort will likely include some type of cap-and-trade system in which over-polluting facilities would buy credits from under-polluting sites in Washington (or in other states and provinces with cap-and-trade agreements).
On Tuesday, the senate and house GOP leaders really, really did not like where Inslee wanted to aim his efforts this year. The Republicans hate the idea of increasing the state’s minimum wage, arguing that such an increase would hurt small businesses and industries, especially in rural counties where unemployment figures are much higher than in liberal and relatively prosperous King County. (The senate’s conservatives killed a bill by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, in 2015 that would have phased in a $12 an hour statewide minimum wage.)
On Tuesday, Farrell said the same bill is poised for a sure-thing house vote and will be sent back to the senate—if senate Republicans pass their own minium-wage-increase bill as a good faith gesture to begin negotiating a compromise bill. On the sidelines are a couple influential business lobbying organizations—the Washington Restaurant Association and the Association of Washington Business—that don’t want a minimum-wage increase, but would rather have a nuanced, negotiated bill than face a blunt force initiative in November.
Still, senate GOP leaders were a semantic split hair away from “Hell no” on Tuesday, saying that they would not consider coming up with a counteroffer on a minimum-wage bill. “Minimum wage was never supposed to be a living wage,” said House Republican Caucus Leader Shelly Short, R- Addy. GOP leaders believe streamlining permiting processes and easing other regulations will lead to more prosperous businsses able to pay more to employees.
Meanwhile, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has introduced a bill to take away the governor’s power to set up carbon emissions regulations. (Inslee says two state laws give him that power.) Ericksen likely has the GOP votes to get that bill out of the senate, but his legislation will likely die in the Democrat-controlled house.
Republican leaders also noted many carbon-emitting sites are the main employers in their economically struggling rural districts. They said increased costs on those facilities would hurt their bottom lines, translating to fewer jobs.
Four carbon movements are now on a collision course in 2016. Ericksen’s bill; Inslee’s regulatory approach; Initiative 732, which would affect more facilities than Inslee’s proposal; and a yet-to-be-unveiled initiative expected to go further than I-732.
And, as mentioned earlier, for the first time in recent memory the state investment board might become controversial with Republicans this year.
Senate Majroty Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, grumbled: “This is the first time I’ve seen the governor politicize the state investment board. I hope the independent members of the state investment board dismiss this idea.” Schoesler said high pay is needed to get top-notch corporate executives.