Maybe the quarters of the state Capitol are getting a little too close for Washington state legislators as they await release of this month’s budget forecast. True, lawmakers are getting some work done as the Democratic-dominated House and the Republican-controlled Senate pass measures of interest to their respective caucuses: voting reform in the House and education reform in the Senate. And there have been areas of cross-party cooperation.
But alas, after two months in session, a couple of issues have seen unseemly displays of partisan pique.
One came on a bill by 13th District state Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry that would set up a training wage of 75 percent of the state’s minimum wage for new employees — the training wage would be $6.91 per hour compared with the standard $9.19 per hour. It’s a limited proposal, as Holmquist Newbry, a Moses Lake Republican, gives a nod to the popularity of the minimum wage law. Voters ratified the setup in 1998 when they approved Initiative 688 with a 66.1 percent yes vote statewide — and 59.8 percent in conservative Yakima County. But the wage is indexed to inflation and is the highest in the country; many businesses say they could hire more workers — especially teenagers who suffer high unemployment rates — if the wage were reduced.
Her bill would be limited to the first 680 hours that an employee works and to 10 percent of an employer’s workers, and Holmquist Newbry says she intends to amend it so that it would apply only to teenage workers. Her proposal addresses business concerns while acknowledging that many adult workers depend on minimum-wage jobs for income. It is a talking point for a serious debate.
Democrats appear eager to debate, but not seriously. In response to the bill, four Democratic legislators introduced a resolution that would limit a freshman legislator’s salary during his or her first two years to 75 percent of the current $42,000 a year, or $31,000. Democrats admit it was a political gambit to make a point; unfortunately, their point undermines more serious arguments about whether employers could game the system by constantly hiring and firing new workers.
Every politician campaigns on a platform of creating more jobs, and here is a proposal with that in mind. Agree or disagree, to dismiss the bill with ridicule does nothing to advance the debate about moving the state’s economy forward — and for having both parties work together on critical economic issues.
On a second matter, it’s the Republicans whose expressed indignation is uncalled-for.
In the wake of the state Supreme Court ruling that overturned the voter-approved two-thirds legislative majority to raise taxes, three Republican senators — one of them Holmquist Newbry — introduced a bill that would whack the court from nine members to five. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane, the state senator who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell last fall, suggested the justices could draw straws to determine who would go and who would stay. He suggests the money savings — miniscule in a $30 billion-plus budget — would go to teacher salaries.
No doubt, the justices bucked the will of the people in their ruling. Voters have approved the two-thirds requirement five times over the past two decades; last fall Initiative 1185 won a 63.9 percent yes vote statewide, 69.6 percent in Yakima County. But in the justices’ constitutional view, a legislative majority — not supermajority — rules on taxation issues. Baumgartner makes a century-old constitutional point of sorts, referring to original five members that eventually was bumped up to nine members by successive legislative actions ending in 1909. He didn’t specify why there is such an urgency now, more than 100 years later.
The court did spell out a remedy for two-thirds supporters as enabled by the constitution: Lawmakers could muster a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, then a majority popular vote, and thus enshrine their tax hurdle in the state constitution. Agree or disagree, this is the court’s considered opinion. Take it from there.
OK, so much for scoring points as opposed to solving problems. The above tactics vent some hot air but don’t make progress toward addressing our state’s real needs. Someone, we suppose, could suggest a training wage for legislators who waste time and resources with spurious bills. Instead, we’ll just urge lawmakers to get down to serious business as budgetary crunch time looms for the Legislature.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.