OLYMPIA — Washington should raise its minimum wage, spend more on schools and highways, raise teacher salaries and do something about climate change, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday.
“We have done hard things. And we can do more,” the Democratic governor told a joint legislative session in his annual State of the State address.
Legislative Republicans and a Democrat who joined them to form the Senate’s ruling coalition were quick to criticize the speech as long on ideas but short on specifics.
He didn’t say how much to raise the state’s minimum wage — already the highest in the nation — but set a range of $1.50 to $2.50 an hour, critics noted.
Whatever the amount, it would be particularly hard on businesses in counties that border Idaho, where the minimum wage is already about $2 less than in Washington, said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Cities like Seattle, which is talking about establishing a “livable wage” of $15 an hour, can do so if they want, said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.
Progressive groups and legislative Democrats applauded Inslee’s call for more money to pay for new school programs to meet a state Supreme Court mandate and for the cost-of-living raises that a 2000 state initiative promised but state officials usually cancel to make the budget balance.
Inslee said the court’s order last Thursday, which requires a report by April 30 on how the state will meet its obligations to the public schools over the next five years, forces him and the Legislature to come up with concrete action, not just promises.
“Promises don’t educate our children,” Inslee said, adding, “we must weigh tax breaks against the increasing call for action.”
Tom said the Legislature added $1 billion for education last year and now needs to focus on reforms. “We don’t just talk about education, we prioritize it,” he said, increasing state money to schools at a greater rate than to non-education programs.
And while the Legislature will respond to the court by the April deadline, Deputy House Republican Leader Joel Kretz, of Wauconda, said that doesn’t mean it will raise taxes. “The public is not interested in tax increases right now.”
The court doesn’t have the authority to raise taxes, said House GOP Leader Dan Kristiansen, of Snohomish. “If that’s what they want to do, they can run for the Legislature.”
In the most political part of his speech, Inslee challenged the predominantly Republican majority in the Senate to pass a transportation package that would restart negotiations with the House, which passed a plan last year. Finding a package that its members could pass stymied the majority coalition last year.
“The goal cannot be for everyone to get everything they want. Instead we must get agreement on what the state needs,” he said.
But Inslee and the Department of Transportation should first explain how it will avoid mistakes that have plagued “megaprojects” in the Seattle area, Kristiansen said.
Inslee called for action on climate change but postponed saying what that might be until a working group completes a report next week.
But if those recommendations include any action to promote low-carbon fuels that raise the price of gasoline, Republicans said they’d oppose it because the public can’t afford that plus a gasoline tax increase for a transportation package.
Republican leaders were skeptical of an Inslee proposal for a tax break for small businesses. The governor said companies with an annual income of less than $50,000 should pay no business and occupation tax.
The state should not pick winners and losers, Kristiansen said. “There’s no specifics on that. Who’s going to pay the difference?”