Policy: Labor

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's big ideas face big hurdles

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Education,Transportation,Associated Press,Labor,Washington,Entitlements,Budgets and Deficits,Minimum Wage,Unemployment

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has some big ideas that face some big hurdles in the state Legislature.

If the Democratic governor has his way, lawmakers will work over the next several weeks to increase the minimum wage, raise the state gas tax, provide financial aid to students living in the country illegally and add more funding to public schools.

But it's possible none of those things will happen.

Leaders in the state Senate — largely Republicans, but also some Democrats — have balked at Inslee's proposals, which he laid out this week in an address before the Legislature at the start of a 60-day lawmaking session. Here's a look at some of Inslee's ideas and how they've been received by lawmakers:

Minimum wage

Inslee proposed this week to increase Washington's minimum wage from $9.32 an hour — already the nation's highest state standard — to somewhere between $10.82 and $11.82 cents an hour. It's an idea that was not well received by the Senate, particularly among lawmakers who represent rural areas.

Senate leaders expressed a variety of concerns about the minimum wage hike, saying it would force more small businesses to close down, that it would make it difficult for the agriculture industry to have their commodities compete nationally and that it would particularly strain businesses in border counties near Idaho, which has a minimum wage at just $7.25 — a difference of perhaps $4 an hour under Inslee's plan.

Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove represents portions of Grays Harbor County, which has the largest unemployment rate in the state. He said small business owners in his region would have to lay people off if the minimum wage increases.

"I'm not seeing how it could work," Hargrove said.

Transportation package

Inslee said last year that lawmakers needed to approve a package by the end of 2013. It didn't happen. Now he says 2014 is the year, but the political dynamics are only growing more challenging.

To approve the transportation package, lawmakers would need to vote in favor of a large increase in the state gas tax to help fund the projects. That's a difficult vote for some in an election year.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation is in the midst of troubles on two current megaprojects — the 520 bridge replacement linking Seattle to Bellevue and the tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. Lawmakers from both parties have said those issues make it more challenging to pass the transportation package, since the bill may need approval from voters in a referendum.

Inslee spokesman Jaime Smith said there's some frustration at the governor's office that the issues aren't moving ahead, especially on the transportation package that lawmakers have worked on for so long. She said the Senate can act to advance the transportation plan and other issues.

"There's certainly a path forward on all of these things if the folks in the Senate were ready to take those on with us," Smith said.

Financial aid

Inslee wants lawmakers to approve a plan that would expand state financial aid to students who are living in the country illegally. That bill stalled in the Senate last year.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, the Democratic leader of the predominantly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus, said this week his caucus is focused on other priorities. Some Republicans expressed concern that expanding the program to those living in the country illegally would prevent others from getting financial aid.

Education funding

Inslee himself had initially proposed minimal budget changes for the 60-day legislative session but has since scrapped his own budget plan and recommended adding $200 million to the state education system. He proposes doing that, in part, by eliminating some tax exemptions — although he hasn't identified which ones.

Tom, however, said short legislative sessions like the current one aren't typically used for sweeping changes to the state budget. Plus, he argued, lawmakers will be able to fully fund education in the coming years if they simply dedicate growing revenues to public schools.

Senate leaders are proposing to limit non-educational spending to grow only in line with the state population and inflation. Tom said if lawmakers abide by those limits, education funding can be done without raising new revenue.

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