Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle speaks at a news conference before a hearing on a bill to raise the state's minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next four years, Monday, March 30, 2015, in Olympia, Wash. Farrell is sponsor of the bill that has passed the House and is being considered by the Senate, and would add a series of 50-cent increases to the current $9.47 state hourly minimum wage. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
Teresa Mosqueda of the Washington State Labor Council, at podium, is joined by lawmakers and other supporters at a news conference before a hearing on a bill to raise the state's minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next four years, Monday, March 30, 2015, in Olympia, Wash. The bill, which has passed the House and is being considered by the Senate, would add a series of 50-cent increases to the current $9.47 state hourly minimum wage. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
OLYMPIA, Washington — A politically charged proposal to raise Washington's highest-in-the-nation state minimum wage to $12 an hour over four years drew extended debate and a capacity crowd to a Senate committee hearing Monday.
The bill to raise minimum wage via a series of annual 50-cent increases, passed the Democrat-controlled House in a party-line vote earlier in March and has a Wednesday deadline to get voted out of committee in the Republican-led Senate. Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said he is weighing whether the bill should get past the Commerce and Labor committee he chairs.
In the committee's public hearing, HB 1355 drew spirited debate, with backers of the minimum-wage increase outnumbering its opponents. Washington's hourly minimum wage is now $9.47. Under the state's current law, Washington's minimum wage is adjusted each year for inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. The Employment Security Department said this year's minimum wage hike affected more than 67,000 workers.
Economic studies were invoked on each side of the debate on further raises, as were religious imperatives to pay a living wage and the potential loss of business with higher labor costs. JoReen Brinkman, owner of four fast-food franchises in Pullman, said competitors across the Idaho border could charge lower prices to budget-conscious students if they can pay lower wages.
"This bill would take away any competitive edge we have," Brinkman said.
Several other small-business owners said the cost of paying workers more would come back in business revenues.
"The more money they have, the more ice cream they buy," said Molly Moon Neitzel, who owns six eponymous ice-cream shops in Seattle, in explaining her support for the bill.
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, brought up another motivation to pass a wage increase now: billionaire Nick Hanauer's statements he will fund a statewide initiative in 2016 for Washington voters to decide on instituting a $16 minimum wage.
Hobbs has floated his own minimum-wage bill to create a $13 an hour minimum wage — higher than what the House has already passed, but which also counts workers' tips and health care benefits toward that requirement. He pitched it Monday as a compromise plan, and called the Hanauer initiative a "dangerous" possibility.
"I've already been harassed by our right-wing members and our more left-wing members," Hobbs said, "so it must be a good bill."
The bill's lead House sponsor, Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, said a full-time worker making Washington's current minimum wage would have a hard time being self-sufficient on a pretax income of about $20,000.
"If you work full time, if you work hard, then you should be able to pay your own way," she said.
After the hearing, Baumgartner said much of Washington is in different economic straits than Seattle, which has implemented a series of minimum-wage increases leading to a $15 an hour requirement. He said he has similar doubts about a bill requiring employers to offer paid sick leave, as Seattle does.
"While these things might be right for Seattle, I think they're probably wrong for the rest of the state," Baumgartner said.
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