THE initiative process is a blunt instrument best reserved for times of obfuscation or neglect by elected leaders. When it’s poorly used, it is like the sound of breaking glass on your front porch. It focuses attention, but the consequences are rarely good.
Nonetheless, that seems the approach of Seattle’s 15 Now activists, who are preparing to put a $15 minimum-wage initiative on Seattle’s November ballot if they don’t like an alternative being considered by a special advisory committee. The effort, described by Seattle Times’ reporter Lynn Thompson last week, seems intended to hijack an important, nuanced policy debate with little more than a catchy slogan.
The minimum-wage issue has clearly captivated Seattle’s elected leadership. The mayor and all nine City Council members support an increase. The 24-member advisory committee convened by Mayor Ed Murray is working diligently, with a late-April deadline to produce policy recommendations.
The committee — which includes three City Council members, and leaders from business, labor, nonprofit and minority communities — appears willing to move past dogma. The group will soon begin sifting through research data from the University of Washington and University of California, Berkeley, which have examined steep local minimum-wage increases elsewhere and profiled Seattle’s lower-wage workers.
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The intent here should be to parse the consequences, intended and unintended. Smart economic policies are a means to an end: What would Seattle actually be buying with a $15 minimum wage?
This debate may appropriately lead to a higher Seattle minimum wage. Before that, there are myriad unanswered questions. What defines compensation? Wages alone, or do benefits like health insurance count? How would nonprofits and small businesses fare? Would a $15 minimum wage kill job prospects for teenagers? How should it be phased in?
The mayor’s committee, co-chaired by SEIU leader David Rolf and Seattle Hospitality Group CEO Howard Wright, is asking the right questions. Done right, the committee’s work will produce recommendations that would get a full public airing and be weighed by the City Council.
Contrast that with the 15 Now crowd’s demand of a sudden, across-the-board, no-exemptions 61 percent increase in Seattle’s minimum wage. That kind of footstamping makes good political theater, but bad public policy.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).