By John Stang for TCAJOB
The Washington Legislature’s business agenda this session does not target Main Street very much.
Instead, the biggest bills currently going through the Legislature’s business committees tackle marijuana and the high-tech world — reflecting how Washington’s business world has expanded and evolved in recent years.
In fact, the Legislature is in the process of punting the two biggest business issues in the state — raising the state’s minimum wage and putting caps on carbon emissions — to voters in November.
Nothing could be more Main Street than raising the minimum wage. The proposed minimum-wage increase affects both business owners and the state’s current minimum-wage workers.
Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, got a bill passed in the House last year to raise Washington's statewide minimum wage from the current $9.47 an hour to $12 an hour over four years. Seattle, SeaTac, and recently Spokane and Tacoma have raised their minimum wage above the statewide level—creating a hodgepodge of different minimum wages across Washington.
But Farrell’s bill quickly died in the Senate Commerce & Labor committee in 2015. That same GOP-controlled committee blocked a House democrat mandatory sick leave measure in 2015.
This year, Farrell’s bill is poised for a likely-to-be-passed-again House vote and will be sent back to the Senate—if Senate republicans pass their own minimum-wage-increase bill as a good faith gesture to begin negotiating a compromise bill.
On the sidelines are a couple influential business lobbying organizations — the Washington Restaurant Association and the Association of Washington Business — that don’t want a minimum-wage increase, but would rather have a nuanced, negotiated bill than face a blunt force initiative in November.
So far, this session, Senate republican leaders have voiced no interest in making a minimum-wage counteroffer. The republicans hate the idea of increasing the state’s minimum wage, arguing that such an increase would hurt small businesses and industries, especially in rural counties where unemployment figures are much higher than in the liberal and relatively prosperous King County.
Meanwhile, an initiative is set for a public vote in November to raise the state’s minimum wage to $13.50 an hour across four years beginning in 2017—and would require paid sick leave for private-sector workers. At this time, the Legislature does not appear to be a factor in this issue any more.
Gov. Jay Inslee recently noted that Washington ranks among the top five states in job growth and leads the nation in gross domestic product growth.
"The problem is most workers are not sharing in the fruits of their own productivity,” he said. “If you work 40 hours a week, you deserve a wage that puts a roof over your head and food on the table."
Another somewhat Main Street issue is putting a cap on carbon emissions from the state’s top polluters. This could impact public health and possibly jobs.
But the Legislature is essentially punting on whether to put a cap on carbon pollution in the state with some type of tax or fine, or with a cap-and-trade system.
Republicans don’t like the concept because they believe it will hurt industries and jobs. Meanwhile, democrats support it because of concerns about public health and its costs on ordinary people, global warming and a belief that a clean energy industry can provide a jobs bonanza.
No signs have surfaced that a legislative compromise is possible on this issue.
So Inslee has ordered Washington’s Department of Ecology to put together regulations by this summer to put a cap of 100,000 metric tons on carbon emissions a year from any air-polluting site. The effort will likely include some type of cap-and-trade system in which over-polluting facilities would buy credits from under-polluting sites in Washington, or in other states and provinces with cap-and-trade agreements.
Several Mid-Columbia facilities reach that 100,000-metric-ton benchmark. These include Agrium in Kennewick, Boise Paper in Wallula, REC Silicon in Moses Lake, the regional landfill in Roosevelt, the Terrace Heights landfill in Yakima, the Gas Transmission Northwest facility in Wallula and McCain Foods in Othello.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has introduced a bill to take away the governor’s power to set up carbon emissions regulations. Inslee says two state laws give him that power. Ericksen likely has enough GOP votes to get that bill out of the Senate, but the legislation will likely die in the democrat-controlled House.
Republican leaders also noted many carbon-emitting sites are the main employers in their economically struggling rural districts. They said increased costs on those facilities would hurt their bottom lines, translating to fewer jobs.
Four carbon movements are now on a collision course in 2016. Ericksen’s bill; Inslee’s regulatory approach; Initiative 732, which would affect more facilities than Inslee’s proposal; and a yet-to-be-unveiled initiative expected to go further than I-732.
Meanwhile, here is a rundown of other business legislation in play this session.
* One-stop portal for business paperwork — A bill introduced by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, is in play to order several state agencies — including the commerce and revenue departments — to prepare a plan by Nov. 30 to create an office where businesses can go to one place to handle all of their tax, licensing and permit needs. So far, no significant Democratic opposition has surfaced.
* Workers compensation — In some years, this has been a major field of conflict between democrats and republicans. But that is not so in 2016.
A few Senate GOP workers compensation bills never made it out of the Republican-controlled Senate in 2015, and none appear to be revived so far in 2016. That dormant legislation includes a GOP bill that passed the Senate and died in the House in 2105 to allow workers 40 years and older to enter structured settlements. The current minimum age is 50. Labor and business lobbies have fought intensively over this bill.
A bipartisan bill by conservative Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, and the Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, is in play to make minor tweaks in how workers compensation is monitored.
* Cybercrime — Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, and Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, have introduced similar bills to make certain malicious online activities into actual crimes with prison terms and fines. Their bills would make unauthorized people interfering with, changing, deleting or damaging electronic data and its transmission into Class C felonies with maximum prison sentences of five years and fines of up to $10,000.
The bills would make stealing another person’s online identity or creating a fake online identity in order to interfere with or damage online data and its transmission into a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine up to $5,000.
* Marijuana — Cities and counties seeking to ban marijuana businesses in their jurisdictions could do so only through a public ballot, in a bill introduced by Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma. That bill is working its way through the House.
A couple dozen bills are in play to tweak Washington’s marijuana system. The other most significant one would be a bill by Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, to reduce the retail marijuana excise tax from 37 percent to 25 percent in an attempt make state-licensed pot stores competitive with illegal pot sellers.
* Insurance — Under employer-employee agreements on reimbursing mileage and paying for auto repairs, the subject of insurance would be exempt from state regulation, according to a bill by Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma.
* Ticket bots — “A ticket bot” or “robot” is software that can buy hundreds or thousands of theater tickets the split second those tickets become available online — outracing normal human fingers typing on keyboards. There is serious speculation that this software is being abused in Washington with the tickets being scalped for much higher prices.
The use of ticket bots was outlawed in Washington in 2015. Now, a bill is in play to outlaw the selling to ticket bot software in Washington.
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