Divide between Inslee, Republicans looms large in Olympia

Jay Inslee gives his State of the State address to the Legislature/ Credit: Allyce Andrew

The Republican response to Gov. Jay Inslee's proposals to increase the state minimum wage and to add $200 million in 2104 to meet a state Supreme Court ruling to upgrade Washington's schools?

When Hell freezes over.

It could be that kind of legislative session.

In his State of the State speech Tuesday, Inslee unveiled both proposals. On the minimum wage, he pointed to the growing national problem of income equality — the increasing gap between the richest and poorest people in America. Washington already has the nation's highest minimum wage.

"I don't have the exact number for what amount our minimum wage should be. … It won't be a number that remedies 50 years of income equality," he said. "But I believe that an increase in the range of $1.50 to $2.50 is a step forward toward closing the widening economic gap. There is ample evidence that a raise in that range does not kill jobs. An increase in the minimum wage means more money being spent in our economy," Inslee said.

Washington's minimum wage is $9.32 an hour, the top among states. Inslee's proposal would increase it to $10.82 to $11.82 an hour. Seattle is seriously looking at increasing its minimum wage, with $15 an hour being the top target.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said Inslee's proposal "helps our efforts in Seattle. … People are struggling in Eastern Washington with two or three jobs, just like Western Washington."

Inslee also stressed education, noting that the Washington Supreme Court — in an 8-1 ruing last week — said that the Legislature is behind on dealing with a 2012 decision that the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligations on teacher-student ratios in the lower grades, high school credits and hours taught per year in high school. Last weeks' court ruling on the state's progress toward meeting a mid-2019 target focused on the Legislature underfunding that work in 2013-2015.

The math works like this. The state calculated it would need $4 billion to $4.5 billion in extra appropriations from 2013 through mid-2019 to meet the Supreme Court's requirements. Republican resistance trimmed the original proposals of $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion to $982 million in 2013-2015, which also used one-time budget shifts. That means the Legislature will need to appropriate $1.5 billion to $1.75 billion each for 2015-207 and 2017-2019 to meet the ruling's requirements. Last week, the Supreme Court gave the Legislature until April 30 to produce a catch-up plan.

"The court wrote that it wants to see 'immediate. concrete action … not simply promises.' I agree," Inslee said. Consequently, he wants to allocate another $200 million in 2014 to chip away at the 2102 court ruling's obligations, plus to provide some cost-of-living adjustments to teachers — raises that have been suspended for years. He proposed to raise the money by closing some tax exemptions. But he has not yet identified what exemptions would be targeted.

Republicans and Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina and leader of the 24-Republican-two-Democrat Majority Coalition Caucus that controls the Senate, said both proposals are non-starters for them.

"We already have the highest minimum wage in the country," Tom said. Senate Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said increasing the minimum wage would put a crippling burden on small businesses. Republicans pointed especially to businesses near Oregon and Idaho, which already have lower minimum wages. Also, Schoesler said a higher minimum wage would hurt Washington's farm exports because they would have compete against cheaper exports from other states.

"I wouldn't hire Jay Inslee as my economist," said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

Seattle Top Story has education comments from Gov. Inslee and Sen. Tom

At the same time, Tom and Republican leaders sharply declared that the Supreme Court overstepped its judicial boundaries in declaring that the state is not allocating enough money to comply with the 2012 education ruling. And they repeated their stance that reforms, not extra money, will cure the state's education problems.

"Our bar is not the Supreme Court. We addressed the money issue last session," Tom said. House Deputy Minority Leader Joel Kretz, R-Omak, said: "There's a higher authority than the court. The people in this state say they don't want a tax increase. … That's what the Supreme Court is pushing for — a tax increase."

Baumgartner said of the justices: "They're elected politicians like the rest of us. They are out of their lane on writing the budget."

Inslee called for the Senate to pass a transportation package to provide a solid base for the House to negotiate against with own package passed in 2013. Right now, the Senate Republicans' transportation leader Sen. Curtis King is negotiating with his Democratic counterparts with a proposal. But no one publicly knows, including King, whether a majority of the 24-Republican-two-Democrat coalition supports what he is currently proposing to the Democrats. Coalition leaders dodged a question Tuesday on whether they have polled their own caucus on King's position.

Meanwhile, Tom criticized King County Executive Dow Constantine for calling Tuesday for a public vote on local taxes to protect King County Metro Transit from 17 percent service cuts because the Legislature does not appear close to passing a transportation package. One part of any package would likely cover King County Metro. Tom contended that if King County voters take care of the Metro issue on their own, Seattle-area legislators will have less incentive to reach a compromise on the state package. Democrats have started to complain about the lack of action by the Senate, predicting that a failure to move quickly would result in local authorities feeling they had to act on their own.

Inslee called for passage of a bipartisan House bill to allow high school graduates  — whose parents are undocumented immigrants — to apply for state college aid. Majority coalition leaders have already said that bill is dead on arrival.

Also, Inslee called for the state to tackle carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming and to ocean acidification that kills baby shellfish in Washington's waters. Inslee did not cite any specific proposals in this call. A bipartisan panel is deeply and probably irreconcilably split on how to address that issue. Democrats, including Inslee, want to put a cap on carbon emissions and to install a cap-and-trade system. Republicans want to explore nuclear power, plus decreasing the emissions targets goals by a 2008 state law.

Looming in the background is whether Washington should adopt some type of low-carbon-fuel standards for vehicles. That proposal will likely will never survive the Republican-controlled Senate. Inslee could try to install a low-carbon-fuel standard by administrative means. Republicans want Inslee to promise that he won't do that. And Republicans have introduced a bill to take away Inslee's ability to do so on that issue. There are also serious rumblings that such a move by Inslee could tangle up the transportation package talks more than they are now.

So far, Inslee has been unwilling to rule out installing low-carbon-fuel standards by administrative means.

Republicans may have to wait to find out what he's planning to do.

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