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Minimum wage passes House, heads to Senate

By John Stang

Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, unleashed the forces of science on a Washington House minimum-wage bill Tuesday, arguing that it made no economic sense.

“All these arguments are the result of economic illiteracy,” he said. Referring to criticisms of his party on climate change, Manweller added, “We get accused all the time of being anti-science. If you vote for this bill, you don’t have the right to call anyone ‘anti-science.’ This is the most anti-science vote of all time.”

Manweller’s remarks came as the House debated Rep. Jessyn Farrell’s bill to raise Washington’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2019.

Shortly after Manweller’s argument, 51 Democrats voted for the bill and 46 Republicans voted against it, passing the bill and sending it to the Senate. By the same margin, the House also passed a bill Tuesday by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, to require businesses with more than four employees to provide sick leave for their workers. The amount of required sick leave would vary by the size of the company.

What reception will Farrell’s minimum wage bill likely receive in the Senate? “Probably chilly in our caucus,” said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee and GOP caucus chairwoman. The Majority Coalition Caucus of 25 Republicans and one Democrat controls the 49-member Senate.

However, one GOP senator, Mark Miloscia of Federal Way, supports Farrell’s concept. So, it’s possible that Democrats would need only one more Republican vote in the Senate to pass the House bill, or some version of it.

Farrell’s bill would increase the state minimum wage in steps. The proposal is to move the wage to $10 an hour in 2016, $10.50 in 2017, $11 in 2018 and $12 in 2019. A companion Democratic bill in the Senate died immediately. Washington’s minimum wage is now $9.47 an hour — the highest in the nation.

Farrell contended that if someone works all day, five days a week for minimum wage, they should earn enough to make a living. She noted many people are trying to support families with minimum-wage jobs.

On Tuesday, Republicans tried to introduce 12 amendments to the bill to slow down future minimum-wage increases after the $12 target is reached; to add so-called “teen” wages for teenagers that are less than the minimum wage; and, among other things, to set performance reviews to see if the new minimum wage law –if enacted — actually improves the economy.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, took the unusual step of presiding over the House floor debates, quickly ruling that nine of the GOP amendments did not fit the description, title or scope of Farrell’s bill. That killed the proposals before the Republicans could debate the Democrats on them. The Democrats easily defeated the other three proposed amendments after short debates.

Chopp and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said amendments cannot address subjects beyond what is listed in a bill’s title or language. Farrell’s bill is short — replacing three paragraphs of state law with four new paragraphs.

House Republicans cried foul over Chopp’s blocking of debate on their proposed amendments.

“How can we have a respectful conversation when half of the House is shut out of it?” asked Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton. “I have learned that power trumps business,” Manweller added.

In their arguments for Farrell’s bill, the Democrats argued that 85 percent of minimum-wage earners are adults, with the vast majority of them supporting families. They also said higher minimum wages circulate more money through the economy to help businesses and that the wage will reduce the number of people needing to use state services, saving money for the state.

“We’ll put $1 billion in the pockets of people who won’t be spending those dollars on Wall Street or on overseas vacations, but spending the money in local businesses,” Sullivan said.

The GOP arguments against the bill included the greater burden that would be placed on small businesses and startups. Republicans said the increase would discourage employers from hiring teenagers for their first jobs and put Washington businesses at a disadvantage to Idaho and Oregon businesses with lower minimum wages.

Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, pointed to a Green Giant plant that existed several years ago in Dayton. It hit a financial rough patch and asked the state for an exemption from the minimum wage law, and could not get it. Consequently, Green Giant moved the Dayton plant’s work to another state, removing 500 seasonal jobs from that area, Nealey said.

“The minimum wage has been in the back of my mind ever since,” he said. “It gutted our economy.”

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.


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Oil train safety bill prompts debate about public notifications

By John Stang

Should the public know when oil trains come through and what type of oil they are carrying?

That question was debated Tuesday at a Washington House Environment  Committee hearing on an oil train safety bill introduced by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D- Seattle.

The Western States Petroleum Association, two railroads and at least one committee member believe the answer on whether to put out public information about the shipments is “no.”  Farrell, King County, the city of Vancouver and some environmental groups say “yes.”

Farrell’s bill covers a long list of oil transportation safety matters – including spill-related emergency training and responses, tugboat regulations regarding oil shipping in Washington’s waters, information to be provided to emergency agencies, and an oil tax hike from four cents to 10 cents per 42-gallon barrel.

But the public notification issue sparked the most debate Tuesday in a packed Olympia hearing room.

Representatives from the petroleum association plus the BNSF and Union Pacific railroad supported boosting emergency agencies’ capabilities to deal with oil train spills and fires. But they deferred questions to local agencies on whether those departments know whether an oil train is moving through their area that specific day. Having the correct equipment and training is more important than knowing when the oil trains pass through, said Johan Hellman, representing BNSF.

Also, emergency responders can know the petro-chemical makeup of the oil in the upcoming trains, if they sign confidentiality agreements not to disclose that information to the public. Different types of oil have different levels of volatility with different response measures required. Already, a manifest of the oil’s volumes and contents is on each train, and responders can also get that information during an emergency via a toll-free phone number, said Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association.

Holmes said oil companies are concerned about giving information to competitors and potentially creating terror threats if the oil train timetables and exact contents are made public. Environment Committee member Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, agreed. “If some of the information is made public, I think it could jeopardize national security,” he said.

However, Candace Mumm, a resident of Spokane, said: “Disclosure is very important to us. … It’s important for responders to know what’s there.” Darcy Nonemacher of the Washington Environment Council suggested that a government web site could be set up that contains needed information, but works around the proprietary issues.

“We need to know what’s moving by rail through our city,” said Vancouver City Council member Bart Hansen. Vancouver has a new oil terminal in the works. Currently, Vancouver averages 18 oil trains a week, but expects that to increase to eight to 12 oil trains a day when the new oil terminal opens, he said. King County emergency official Barnaby Dow said eight to 12 oil trains are currently going through the county each week.

Geoff Simpson, representing the Washington State Council of Firefighters, also argued for advance notification of oil trains, suggesting that the state military emergency services headquarters could be the clearing house.

In 2013 and 2014, the United States had four oil train accidents that produced fires — one in North Dakota, one in West Virginia and two in New England. Closer to home, three 29,200-gallon oil cars on a slow-moving train derailed without any spills or fire beneath Seattle’s Magnolia Bridge in July. Looming over this entire issue is a July 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

Lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature are trying to figure out the best ways to respond to a booming increase in the shipping of crude oil by rail in Washington from almost none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013. A state report speculated that volume could reach 2.87 billion gallons for 2015.

The Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee has recommended passage of a bill sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R- Ferndale. His bill, which passed on a 5-to-4 party line vote, is now awaiting action by the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

Ericksen’s bill has no public disclosure requirements, and, unlike Farrell’s, it addresses only oil transportation by rail. Both bills increase per-barrel oil taxes to cover emergency response and planning expenses. Farrell’s bill would impose charges on both crude and refined oil, while Ericksen’s addresses only crude oil. But a split over the public notification provisions was at the heart of a House-Senate stalemate last year, and that could be a key issue again as lawmakers attempt to respond to the growing oil train traffic.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.


$12 minimum wage bill passes its first hurdle

By John Stang

A bill to increase Washington’s minimum wage cleared the House Labor Committee Thursday by a 4-3 party-line vote.

The Democrats’ committee victory means that Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D- Seattle, now has to nail down 50 votes to for her bill to pass the full House. It would increase Washington’s minimum wage from $9.47 to $12 an hour by 2019.

She introduced a similar bill last year, but it could scrape up only 46 or 47 votes behind the scenes. Farrell hopes expanding the phase-in period from three years to four years will pick up the remaining votes.

On another 4-3 vote, the committee recommended approval of a bill by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, to require companies with more than four employees to provide sick leave.

Committee chair Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, said: “This boils down to something simple to me. I don’t want to be served by someone who is sick.” Rep. Graham Hunt, R-Orting, replied that a sick leave bill “fosters employer-employee conflict” with tensions on the use of the sick leave.

If the two bills pass the Democratic-controlled House, they appear to have one or two supporters among the Republicans who hold the Senate majority. The measures would likely need at least one or two more GOP members to pass the upper chamber. Most GOP senators appear strongly opposed to each concept.

At Thursday’s labor committee vote on the wage bill, ranking Republican Rep. Matt Manweller of Ellensburg characterized minimum wages as primarily being for workers just starting out. “If you want more money, get more education. If you want more money, get better skills,” he said.

Sells replied: “When you’re at the bottom rung of the ladder, people have a difficult time to do the things that they have to do to climb up.”

The committee’s Democrats defeated an amendment Manweller proposed to create a lesser minimum wage for teenage workers. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, has also offered a bill that more or less resurrects 2013 and 2014 Republican efforts to create a minimum wage for teen workers at 85 percent of the adult minimum wage. The teenage wage would only be allowed for a limited period of work.

In the past, Baumgartner’s teen wage bill has stalled in the Senate amid efforts to tweak it. The House committee vote against Manweller’s amendment is a sign that if Baumgartner’s measure eventually passes the Senate, it will face a tough time in the House.

However, the Manweller teen wage amendment could also be a sign that Republicans may be willing to offer Farrell and other Democrats opportunities to make compromises that would attract enough votes to enact a hike in the minimum wage.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

Minimum wage hike could draw more legislative support this year

By John Stang

Several supporters of an increase in Washington’s minimum wage made a show of playing “bingo” Monday during a House Labor Committee hearing on the proposal. They marked off a box whenever a business lobbyist uttered a specific phrase or argument — such as Idaho’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage or passing costs to customers — to oppose the concept.

One opponent played along, finishing his testimony by saying, “I want you to note that I haven’t said, ‘Obamacare.'” “Bingo,” shouted a minimum wage proponent at the Olympia hearing, whose attendees overflowed into another room.

The labor committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to recommend that the House pass a bill by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, to increase Washington’s minimum wage over four years from the current $9.47 an hour to $12 an hour in 2019.

The committee will also vote on a bill by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, to require businesses with more than four employees to provide sick leave for their workers. Under her bill, which was also part of Monday’s hearing, the amount of required sick leave would vary by the size of the company.

The bulk of the people at the hearing appeared to support increasing the minimum wage and mandatory sick leave. But the opponents represented organizations with huge memberships.

Supporters talked about workers unable to live on a minimum wage when a single emergency can put someone deeply in debt. “People can’t make ends meet at $9.47,” said Long Beach hotel and restaurant owner Tiffany Turner. “These people are making less than $400 a week,” said small business owner Don Orange of Vancouver.

Sarajane Siegfriedt, representing the King County Democratic Party, said that when the federal government set up a minimum wage in the 1930s, “the concept of the minimum wage was a wage you can live on.”

“Nowadays, that living wage is about double the minimum wage,” she added. Supporters also suggested that increasing the minimum wage will circulate more money through the economy to businesses.

While supporters argued that raising the minimum wage would add only a few percentage points to the costs for a business, opponents contended the proposed increase could raise costs by up to 30 percent. And the corresponding costs could be passed along to consumers.

“When some say increasing the minimum wage will have little impact on businesses, that’s not true,” said Robert Battles of the Association of Washington Business.

“A living wage and minimum wage are not the same thing, and were never intended to be,” said Pullman business owner Joreca Brinkman. She said her restaurant operates with less than a 5 percent profit margin and increasing the minimum wage would erase that.

So far, Republican leaders have opposed both the wage-hike and the mandatory sick leave proposal. However there have been rumblings in the past two weeks that the Republicans and business interests might favor having a new minimum wage hammered out in the Legislature rather than risk facing a less-nuanced minimum-wage initiative in 2016.

Bruce Beckett of the Washington Restaurant Association told the House committee, “We’re not excited about the blunt instrument of a ballot initiative.”

House Labor Committee chair Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, said he believes Farrell’s minimum wage bill has enough votes to pass the House this year, although he was less sure about the House prospects for mandatory sick leave.

Last year, Farrell introduced a similar minimum wage bill that never made it to a full floor vote, because the preliminary head count vote showed the bill falling a few votes short of the needed 50 to pass. Her new bill extended the phase-in period from three years to four years to give small businesses more time to prepare for the increases. In the Senate, the minimum wage increase has already picked up two Republican supporters, potentially a factor in the bill’s favor in the GOP-controlled body.

But there could still be plenty of drama – and political games – ahead for both bills.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.