Would Republican Dino Rossi really lower the state's minimum wage by $1.50 an hour if elected governor? That's the claim in an aggressive spate of ads from Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire's campaign. But the ads distort Rossi's comments.

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Would Republican Dino Rossi really lower the state’s minimum wage by $1.50 an hour if elected governor?

That’s the claim in an aggressive spate of ads from Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire’s campaign, which selectively quote Rossi from a debate last month to suggest he’d pursue an across-the-board cut in the state minimum wage.

But the ads distort Rossi’s comments. He was answering a question about a “stair-step training wage” for some new workers and insists he was talking only about teenagers. In his final debate with Gregoire this month, Rossi explicitly pledged not to lower the minimum wage for “any adult.”

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“The ads are untrue and the governor knows it,” said Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait.

Nevertheless, the ads have continued, featuring a cast of adult minimum-wage workers, including an 80-year-old man, to argue “we can’t trust Dino Rossi.”

Democrats insist the ads are accurate. “To me it’s semantics. If you support any wage that’s a dollar-fifty less than the minimum wage, you support lowering the minimum wage,” said Gregoire spokesman Aaron Toso.

While he says he won’t pursue a cut, Rossi does have a record of opposing increases in Washington’s minimum wage — the highest in the nation — saying it hurts businesses.

And the ads are accurate when they quote Rossi saying during the debate that the minimum wage was never meant to be a “family wage.”

Now $8.07 an hour, the state minimum wage will rise to $8.55 an hour in January. Voters approved an initiative in 1998 to automatically raise the wage each year to keep pace with inflation. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can be paid 85 percent of that.

As a state lawmaker, Rossi supported a “trigger bill” that would have frozen those automatic raises when the state’s unemployment rate rises above the national unemployment rate.

Rossi is also endorsed by groups, including the Washington Farm Bureau and Washington Restaurant Association, that have opposed minimum-wage increases.

The current campaign flap began during the Sept. 25 debate sponsored by the Association of Washington Business.

A Yakima theater owner asked whether Rossi or Gregoire would support “a stair-step training wage which would begin $1.50 less than the minimum wage and then ramp up from there.”

Rossi noted his support for the “trigger bill” and said the rising minimum wage is hurting some businesses.

“Would I be open to some of these ideas? You bet. Especially a training wage. You think about how many young people are being cheated out of their first job. Getting the idea of going to work and fulfilling a task and being paid for it. That’s a very good thing.”

He added: “Minimum wage is really your first job. How many people stay at minimum wage? Not very long. It’s not meant to be a family wage, it’s meant to be an entry-level wage. I think it should be looked at as such.”

Answering the same question, Gregoire rejected any changes to the minimum wage.

“There are plenty of folks who are in those minimum-wage jobs who have families to support, and I want to stand with them and make sure they are able to succeed in life and be able to raise their families,” she said.

The person who posed the question was Kathi Mercy, whose family owns three movie theaters in Yakima.

In a phone interview this week, Mercy said her theaters employ 100 people, mostly teenagers earning minimum wage. She said she was interested in a training wage for the first 30 days or so for new teen workers, who often arrive for their first job with few skills.

“These kids come here and they don’t know diddly squat,” Mercy said, yet they get paid the same as other teens who have already been trained.

Mercy said the profit margins of theaters are already thin, and because of the increases in the minimum wage, she is now considering whether she can raise ticket or concession prices without losing customers. Mercy said she may have to consider layoffs or hiring fewer teens in the next year.

Even if Rossi wanted to cut the minimum wage, the Democratic majorities of the state House and Senate won’t let it happen, said Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Restaurant Association, which has complained the looming increase will hurt restaurants.

“The governor’s-race debate is moot,” Anton said. “I would like $1 million tomorrow and no one is gonna give it to me, either. No one is going to lower the base minimum wage by $1.50.”

But minimum-wage backers say they’re still wary of backdoor efforts to cut the minimum wage, such as the “trigger bill” Rossi has supported.

“I think experience has shown that Washington’s strong minimum wage has been a good thing for our economy,” said Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Economic Opportunity Institute, who noted that employment in restaurants has grown at a faster rate than the general economy over the last several years.

Jennifer Fulton, a married waitress with two children who earns minimum wage plus tips at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said she was insulted by Rossi’s claim the minimum wage was not a “family wage.”

Even if Rossi is not proposing an across-the-board cut in the wage, Fulton said, his “training wage” idea could be dangerous.

“There is nothing stopping my boss from laying us off or firing us to get someone at a cheaper wage,” she said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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