Republicans say they’d like to quarantine the lefty politics coming out of Seattle. But a near-billionaire is about to hit them with a bigger dose than ever. Ready for a $16-an-hour minimum wage?
After the state House passed a $12 minimum wage, the Republican chairman of the labor committee in the Senate called the idea “nuts” and likened it to an infection from Seattle.
“We have such a left-wing Seattle, and it’s getting more left wing,” Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, mused on KIRO radio. “We need to try and quarantine the rest of the state from them.”
Which it turns out is exactly the opposite of what is about to happen. Rest of state, you’re about to get an even bigger dose of politics, Seattle-style.
Recently lefty near-billionaire Nick Hanauer has been tweeting in disgust about various inactions of our do-nothing political system. One in particular caught my eye:
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“$16 in ’16,” he tweeted.
I got him on the phone to ask what that’s about.
“Yes, I’m dead serious,” he said. “If the Legislature doesn’t act to raise the minimum wage, we’re going to the ballot with a statewide $16-an-hour minimum-wage initiative in 2016.”
The bill Baumgartner called “nuts,” and which was opposed by an army of business lobbyists, would raise the current $9.47 per hour wage to $12 over four years (about 60 cents increase per year).
“They think $12 is high!” Hanauer mocked. “Here’s their real choice: They can accept $12 now, or it will be much, much higher. If you’re the Association of Washington Business, you should run, not walk, to Olympia and demand they pass that $12 wage bill.”
Hanauer is known for smack talk. But he has become so weary of the gridlock in Congress and the Legislature that he’s setting up what could amount to an initiative factory to simply go around them.
It’s like what Tim Eyman has been doing on tax policy for years — but with a whole lot more money.
From the office of his venture capital fund, on the 28th floor of what used to be called the WAMU building, Hanauer is plotting statewide initiatives for a $16 minimum wage, for strengthened gun-control laws and possibly for another go at some sort of high-earners’ tax for education.
With paid signature gatherers, a million dollars can qualify practically any idea for the ballot. So if you have many hundreds of millions, as Hanauer does, your ability to submit proposed laws to the people is essentially limitless.
He’s teaming with other politically active groups, such as unions, and has hired two writers from The Stranger to help push his ideas. He said the goal is to “disintermediate” the legislative bodies — to step between them and the voters.
“It’s what Amazon did to the bookstores,” he said.
“We’re building a new way of governing the state,” Hanauer added with his usual modesty. “Olympia’s not doing anything, so the power is shifting from Olympia to people like me.”
This is a direct symptom of the disease I was going on about in my last column — that the legislative bodies have become so dysfunctional that political actors are figuring ways to just circumvent them.
Though Hanauer’s a liberal, he spent some of our conversation excoriating local Democrats for how inept they are at enacting even the mildest gun controls.
As for wages, when even voters in deep-red states are approving 25 to 35 percent wage boosts, as Nebraska, Arkansas and Alaska just did, then it’s hardly far-fetched that people here would support that or more.
So Hanauer’s probably right: Business-backed Republicans are fools not to take the $12 deal on the table. Or craft some compromise bill.
That said, is this any way to run a democracy? It’s true the voters get the final say on all initiatives. But we’ll have a plutocrat in a mirrored skyscraper dictating much of what’s to be on the state’s political agenda.
Even the plutocrat says that’s a sorry situation.
“People should hate that it’s come to this,” Hanauer said. “Who wants to have a clown like me in charge? But when you have lawmakers saying, ‘No, no, no, we’re not doing anything,’ they are just making themselves irrelevant.”
Man’s got a point. Your move, lawmakers — if you have it left in you to make any.