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Legislators look at pay for low, high earners

Changes to state’s minimum wage law appear unlikely this year

OLYMPIA – While a House committee considered plans Tuesday to cut wages for some of the state’s lowest-paid private workers, a Senate committee tried to emphasize the state doesn’t pay the salaries of its highest-paid public workers.

The House Labor Committee considered five different changes to the state’s minimum wage law, which rises with inflation because of a 1998 ballot initiative and is now among the highest in the nation.

It’s so high that it hurts employment, training opportunities and profits, business groups told the committee. Cut the minimum wage and those workers will have less to spend in the economy, opponents of the bills said.

The Senate Higher Education Committee, meanwhile, aired out a bill that would prohibit by statute something that currently doesn’t happen anyway: using state tax money to pay the salaries of coaches and other intercollegiate sports expenses at Washington State University and University of Washington.

“Everywhere I go, people are saying ‘I can’t believe the highest paid people for the state of Washington are football coaches,’ ” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. They’re often skeptical when she tells them that’s not state money; her bill would give current practice of using outside revenue to pay for intercollegiate expenses “the force of law.”

Efforts to trim all or parts of the minimum wage law are common most legislative sessions. This year, Republicans have five separate proposals, among them allowing small businesses to pay a lower training wage to new employees, to pay workers who receive tips a lower hourly wage, to pay teens a lower wage or to use a different consumer price index to adjust the rate.

Their prospects are poor because the Labor Committee held its hearing on the last day to move most bills out of committee and didn’t send them to the full House.

Washington’s minimum wage is $9.04 per hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and several of the plans would use the federal standard as the lower pay scale.

Anthony Anton of the Washington Restaurant Association said the state’s 13,000 restaurants are particularly hard hit by the annual raise in the minimum wage. Washington restaurants employ fewer people than the national average, and can’t easily pass on the costs of the rising minimum wage. “Help us find a reasonable solution,” Anton said.

But restaurant workers argued that a reasonable solution is not cutting their hourly wages. They often work part time, and taxes on their tips are deducted from their wages. Jennifer Fulton, a server at SeaTac Airport, said most live paycheck to paycheck, so a lower wage would mean she wouldn’t have money to spend at restaurants or coffee stands – thus hurting the businesses that are pushing for a lower wage for tipped employees.

And while supporters said a training wage or a teen wage would allow them to give more young workers that important first job, opponents said there is nothing in the bill that required employers to offer training along with that lower wage. Haugen got no objections to her proposal to ban state funds for WSU and UW intercollegiate athletic expenses.

WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos said the Pac-12 Conference’s new television contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports are providing a more equal split of broadcast revenue among the schools, which equates to about $20 million a year extra for WSU. The school could raise as much as $4 million more a year from luxury suites when the stadium expansion is done.

New football coach Mike Leach and his coaching staff will be paid slightly more than $4 million this year. “The revenue sharing plan is funding the salaries,” Moos said.

Margaret Shepherd, UW lobbyist, said athletics have been self-supporting for nearly two decades, and the revenue it generates even covers pensions, utility costs and facility rents.

The Higher Education Committee has until Friday to pass Haugen’s bill to the full Senate.

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