Gov. Inslee has broad plans facing big challenges in state Legislature

By Mike Baker

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee has some big ideas that face some big hurdles in the state Legislature.

If the Democratic governor has his way, lawmakers will work over the next several weeks to increase the minimum wage, raise the state gas tax, provide financial aid to students living in the country illegally and add more funding to public schools.

But it’s possible none of those things will happen.

Leaders in the state Senate — largely Republicans, but also some Democrats — have balked at Inslee’s proposals, which he laid out this week in an address before the Legislature at the start of a 60-day lawmaking session.

Among them are Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, who represents the 24th District, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County, which has the state’s highest unemployment rate.

He said small business owners in his region would have to lay people off if the minimum wage increases.

“I’m not seeing how it could work,” Hargrove said.

Here’s a look at some of Inslee’s ideas and how they’ve been received:

■   Minimum wage — Inslee proposed increasing Washington’s minimum wage from $9.32 an hour — already the nation’s highest state standard — to somewhere between $10.82 and $11.82 an hour.

It’s an idea that was not well received by the Senate, particularly among lawmakers who represent rural areas.

Senate leaders expressed a variety of concerns about the minimum wage hike, saying it would force more small businesses to close, that it would make it difficult for the agriculture industry to compete nationally and that it would particularly strain businesses in border counties near Idaho, which has a minimum wage at $7.25.

■   Transportation package — Inslee said last year lawmakers needed to approve a package by the end of 2013. It didn’t happen.

Now, he says 2014 is the year, but the political dynamics are only growing more challenging.

To approve the transportation package, lawmakers would need to vote in favor of a large increase in the state gas tax to help fund the projects. That’s a difficult vote in an election year.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation is in the midst of troubles on two current megaprojects — the 520 bridge replacement linking Seattle to Bellevue and the tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle.

Lawmakers from both parties have said those issues make it more challenging to pass the transportation package, since the bill may need approval from voters in a referendum.

Inslee spokesman Jaime Smith said there’s some frustration at the governor’s office that the issues aren’t moving ahead, especially on the transportation package that lawmakers have worked on for so long.

She said the Senate can act to advance the transportation plan and other issues.

■   Financial aid — Inslee wants lawmakers to approve a plan that would expand state financial aid to students who are living in the country illegally. That bill stalled in the Senate last year.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, the Democratic leader of the predominantly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus, said last week his caucus is focused on other priorities.

Some Republicans expressed concern that expanding the program to those living in the country illegally would prevent others from getting aid.

■   Education funding — Inslee himself had initially proposed minimal budget changes for the 60-day legislative session but has since scrapped his own budget plan and recommended adding $200 million to the state education system.

He proposes eliminating some tax exemptions — although he hasn’t identified which ones.

Tom, however, said short legislative sessions like the current one aren’t typically used for sweeping changes to the state budget.

Plus, he argued, lawmakers will be able to fully fund education in the coming years if they simply dedicate growing revenues to public schools.

Senate leaders are proposing to limit non-educational spending to grow only in line with the state population and inflation.

Tom said if lawmakers abide by those limits, education funding can be done without raising new revenue.

Last modified: January 19. 2014 6:17PM
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