Minimum wage to rise, but how fast?

The minimum wage in Washington, already highest in the country at $9.47, is destined to rise. There are legitimate questions, however, about how far and how fast government should lift it.

The Legislature is high-centered along party lines on this issue, so it’s a near-certainty that Washington voters will end up deciding the wage issue next November – and possibly sooner in cities around the state.

This is nothing new. In 1998, an initiative backed by labor groups raised the state wage floor and required yearly increases pegged to inflation. That inflation-escalator is a reason Washington has the highest wage floor of any state. The political success of that proven strategy is fueling interest in another initiative to coincide with the presidential election cycle next year.

We hoped that the threat of such an initiative, which could raise the wage floor even higher than $12 per hour, would be enough to prompt lawmakers to act on their own.

What’s needed is a compromise that takes into account concerns of labor and owners of businesses, much like Seattle did last year when it passed its $15 hourly wage law, which began taking effect April 1.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen in the Legislature without a miracle.

But this is an urgent problem. Our slow-growing economy is failing to reward low-wage workers who toil at the margins of a wealthy society.

Polling shows many voters are anxious to move forward, including 69 percent of Olympia voters who told Patinkin Research Strategies in March they support a $15 minimum wage.

Protesters with advocacy group Working Washington were in Olympia and other cities urging a $15 minimum wage last week, and it’s not just our state where pressure is building. President Obama proposed a $10.10 federal minimum last year – up from $7.25 today. Like so much that Obama proposes, it looks dead in Congress.

But voters in four Republican-leaning states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – voted to raise their minimums last fall. In each case the new state minimum was well below what Obama was seeking.

Locally, SeaTac voters enacted a phased-in $15 wage floor for some workers in 2013– which Seattle quickly matched last year with a phased-in approach that raises the minimum wage to $15 over multiple years. Seattle’s approach could be helpful to the rest of the state: Some large businesses must comply within three years, while some smaller ones are given up to seven years to raise wages in smaller increments.

Working Washington is working in Tacoma, Olympia, Spokane and other cities to advance ballot measures at the city level.

Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said labor allies expect to launch a statewide signature drive next year for a fall initiative. There is a lot of polling showing public support for a $12 wage, but Johnson said it is undecided whether to shoot for a $12 minimum or more – possibly as much as a $15 minimum.

An Elway Poll last July found 54 percent think that a $15 minimum wage would hurt the economy.

There could be inclusion of a paid sick-leave requirement, but that might become a separate ballot proposal, Johnson says.

Whatever is proposed would likely impose a single rule for all of the state. Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business, warns that any large hike in the wage floor could have ill effects in some of the state’s most beleaguered counties with jobless rates still in double digits. Of special concern are those that border Idaho, which has a much lower wage, if they are asked to live by the same rules as thriving King County.

Kris Johnson and AWB’s top lobbyist Gary Chandler told our board that a wage law allowing a slower phase-in of higher wages is needed in slower growing counties. But having a patchwork of wages around the state could be confusing, and voters were split on whether to grant cities the right to adopt their own rates, according to Elway’s polling.

What’s clear is that low-wage workers deserve a raise. How big a raise will be for voters to decide.