Washington state voters were ahead of the curve on minimum wage – why can’t these legislators catch up?

When Washington voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative to index the state’s minimum wage to inflation back in 1998, naysayers made “doom and gloom” predictions that turned out to be more Chicken Little than anything else.

Nine other states (AZ, CO, FL, MO, MT, NV, OH, OR, VT) followed suit, and more recently, some (at first blush) surprising advocates for stronger minimum wage laws have emerged. Among them: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Independent), who advocate indexing the federal minimum wage to inflation and increasing the minimum wage, respectively. (President Obama previously endorsed raising the federal minimum wage to $9.50, then indexing it based on the Consumer Price Index.)

Given that context, it’s more than a little surprising to see a group of Washington legislators file three different bills this year, each aimed at undercutting Washington state’s best-in-the-nation minimum wage in some fashion:

  • The first would use a more obscure measure of inflation to reduce cost-of-living adjustments;
  • The second would penalize employees who earn tips by lowering their minimum wage; and
  • The third would outright prohibit a cost-of-living adjustment to the minimum wage when people need it most – when the economy takes a downturn.

What gives? There is no good public policy reason to give a pay cut to tens of thousands of working people trying to make ends meet on a meager hourly wage, especially when Washington state’s long experience makes it clear that a strong minimum wage law protects paychecks and boosts our local economies.

The measures are unlikely to be any too popular with voters, either. In fact, it is *increasing* the minimum wage that draws support from all income groups and political parties – including majorities of independent voters and Republicans. Recent polling found that two-thirds of Americans – a bipartisan majority – support raising the minimum wage to $10 and then indexing it to inflation to keep up with the rising cost of living.

Here’s one possible reason for the bills: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has long sought to overturn state minimum wage laws, and even provides model legislation for state lawmakers to use for that end. And according to SourceWatch, of the eight legislators sponsoring one or more of the three bills in Washington, four have close ties to ALEC:

To be sure, correlation does not equal causation here. But it is certainly a compelling set of connections.

About Aaron Keating

Aaron Keating is the Communications Director for the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle, WA.
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