EDITORIAL | The Tacoma News Tribune: Minimum Wage Initiative Goes a Buck Fifty Too Far

September 24, 2016
The Tacoma News Tribune
Editorial Board

All the cool states are doing it: Oregon, California and New York have committed to phased-in increases to the minimum wage by 2022. In November, a voter initiative will give Washington the chance to join them.

Initiative 1433 would gradually lift the wage floor over four years to $13.50 and introduce a new statewide paid-sick-leave policy. Unfortunately, it pushes a seemingly arbitrary threshold too fast and too far for many Washington communities to bear.

The first jump would take effect Jan. 1 when the current minimum wage of $9.47 (the seventh-highest state) would increase to $11, followed by $11.50 in 2018, $12 in 2019 and the big final leap to $13.50 in 2020.

Finding the sweet spot between wage gains and job losses not only requires political and economic finesse, it takes time, which is why the four year/four dollar acceleration proves risky.

The initiative is an understandable attempt to address a bleak reality: Though the U.S. can pat itself on the back for an historic economic recovery, it failed to reach millions of middle- and low-income workers.

The gross domestic product may be doing just fine, but data from the U.S. Census Bureau show many households have not returned to pre-recession levels due in part to painfully slow wage growth.

There’s no question the raise proposed in I-1433 would be meaningful purchasing power for a working single mother, but it could also be crippling for the business that employs her. Bigger cities like Tacoma and Seattle, which already have raised their base wages, can do so with fewer unintended negative consequences than small towns like Tenino and South Prairie. …

Those who want to raise the minimum wage to $13.50 or higher don’t have much solid research to lean on, at least not in Washington — at least not yet.

Consider Seattle, where the city is gradually moving to $15 an hour. According to the first part of a study by the University of Washington, the lowest-paid workers in Seattle saw a modest gain in income, on the order of a few dollars a week, after the city’s first bump to $11 an hour in 2015.

But those benefits were thought to be mostly the result of a thriving metropolitan economy, and were offset by modest decreases in hours and employment.

The five-year study is still developing, but so far the research doesn’t call for a brass-band celebration.

Another argument against I-1433 is that it would deter new businesses from coming to Washington and shift jobs to lower-wage states. Raising the national minimum wage above today’s obsolete $7.25 an hour, an active discussion in this year’s presidential race, would make progress toward a more equitable base floor. …

But no matter how compelling the arguments seem, an accelerated increase like the one proposed in I-1433 is not a panacea. …