The Washington State Farm Bureau and a coalition of business groups have filed a lawsuit in Kittitas County seeking to overturn a 12-cents-per-hour increase in the minimum wage, which climbs to $8.67 an hour next year.
State Attorney General Rob McKenna’s staff plans to bring in outside counsel on contract to defend the Department of Labor and Industries, which set the higher rate. The AG’s top lawyers had issued an opinion in September that the state did not need to adjust the wage, but the agency had other legal advice it chose to follow.
“This is one of those very rare situations where we will use a special assistant attorney general on contract. We are working on getting that in place,” Elaine Fischer, spokeswoman for L&I, said Monday. “This is just a case where there are two really good legal arguments running up against each other. We went with one that we felt was best, and now it will be for the court to decide.’’
At issue is whether Initiative 688 requires an upward adjustment in a minimum wage that the Farm Bureau decries as already the nation’s highest. Voters approved I-688 in 1998 to tie yearly minimum-wage adjustments to increases in the Consumer Price Index.
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The recent attorney general’s review of the legal questions included a look at arguments made at the time of the 1998 campaign. And neither proponents nor opponents envisioned a decrease in the wage or the cost of living.
But the CPI fell in 2009 after the economic downturn. Despite going back up in 2010, the index is still lower than its peak in 2008. The lawsuit – which echoes the argument of McKenna’s legal team – argues that the wage should not be adjusted until the new CPI reading hits a new high.
L&I had more than one legal opinion and took the position that the law calls for an increase any time the CPI goes up, according to Fischer.
The plaintiff in the suit is the Kittitas County Farm Bureau. The coalition includes the state Farm Bureau, the Washington Restaurant Association, the Washington Retail Association, and the Washington Food Industry Association, all of which employ many low-wage workers.
The Farm Bureau said in a statement that the decision “has significant economic implications, particularly to the thousands of small businesses across the state. And so, it must be addressed by the court.”
“The hope is to wrap things up by mid- to late December. That’s our hope,” Farm Bureau public policy analyst Scott Dilley said Monday, adding that attorneys would try to speed the case through the court. “We do want to see this resolved by Jan. 1 next year so everyone knows what the law is for the minimum wage.’’
“As long as it’s not resolved, the new minimum wage takes effect Jan. 1,” Fischer said. “We haven’t had any reason to believe any different course will be taken there.’’
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog
Farm Bureau news release:
L&I news release on wage hike: