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Posts published in “Day: July 11, 2006”

Spokane’s big box test

In Washington state - would be interesting to know where else this is the case - cities can impose their own minimum wage ordinances, as long as they at least meet state requirements. That much apparently is settled in state law. What's unsettled is to what extent cities can impose the requirements on just some employers.

Wal-MartSpokane seems about to turn into the test case. There, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane is pushing a local initiative to raise by about a third the minimum wages paid to employees in the city's big box retail stores - Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Fred Meyer and others. The group describes the ordinance's purpose as:

This ordinance would require all “big box” retailers in the City of Spokane whose business premises are at 95,000 square feet or more, to pay their employees who have been employed for three or more months 135% of Washington State minimum wage if they do not provide health benefits ($10.30 per hour) and 165% of Washington State minimum wage if they do not provide health benefits ($12.58). This ordinance does not negate collective bargaining agreements established by unions or their respective members.

You see where this is headed: To force the Wal-Marts to pay livable, sustaining wages rather than push a whole range of costs off on the rest of us. Understandable; but is that kind of size distinction between the big boxes and, say, the local hardware store the kind of distinction that can stand up in court? We don't yet know.

The big boxes will challenge it, of course, and obviously will fight in the upcoming campaign. Some have started threatening leaving the city - which seems unlikely unless they want to argue that the only way they want the city's business is on the cheap. (They will not have an easy PR case to make.)

Our offhand guess is that the initiative stands a pretty good chance of passage. If it does, it could touch off a wild political scramble that could reshape some important economic dynamics in the Northwest and beyond.

The perils of summer session

New Idaho Governor Jim Risch, a man of well-tuned political savvy, made a political mistake on the day of his public inauguration. The impression of his governorship he leaves with many Idahoans may ride on whether he's able, in the next few weeks, to overcome it.

Risch has had a superb run since his takeover of the office from Dirk Kempthorne - a string of rapid-fire decisions and appointments and high visibility all around the state, all of it executed with panache. His instincts have not let him down.

Except once.

Risch has accurately perceived widespread anger and disapproval over property taxes this year and, knowing as he does how Idaho government works, recognized that the legislature could improve the situation for many property taxpayers significantly before the real pain hits in the months ahead. Real pain as in, financial for the taxpayers and electoral for certain candidates for re-election. Decisive by character, Risch in his inaugural speech approached the whole thing head-on - he placed himself in a leadership position and concluded, "I will be happy to engage as is appropriate and necessary. My friends, we owe this to the people of Idaho – let’s get it done."

In doing all that, he was acting as governor logically should, with leadership and decision. He was accepting responsibility.

The catch: He had boxed himself in a corner. Until that moment, Idahoans were pointing fingers at legislators, demanding that they do something about property taxes, and legislators were feeling the heat. Now Risch took the PR weight off the shoulders of legislators who were disinclined to compromise a month ago, and may be less inclined now. Today, if a legislator faces an angry constituent, he can say: "Well sure, I would have been interested in doing something. The governor talked about calling a special session, but he never did. So what can I do?"

Problem goes away if Risch does call a special session (provided it succeeds), as he'd evidently like to. And it might happen - a lot of downtown Boise people certainly think it will. We're declining to predict either way.

The "won't" argument is this:

Risch has said that he won't call a session unless the votes to pass the needed legislation are lined up in advance, so the session will be a slam dunk. (Which is the completely appropriate standard; it worked well in Oregon earlier this year.) That means he presumably can't now just call one and hope for the best. But how much progress he's making with the legislators, getting them whipped into shape, is unclear. The special ssession talk has been going on for many weeks, well before Risch took over as governor. Since then, six weeks since Risch's bold inaugural statement, we've heard he's been pressing hard to get the deal done, but no visible indications of success have appeared. We're inclined to take his recent setting of August 25 as a prospective session date, in fact, as another attempt to pressure lawmakers to the table - an indication that they weren't rushing there on their own.

And if the legislators won't come to the table, who takes the fall?

Risch deserves credit for making the effort and taking the risk. How that plays out we should know before long (and, as noted, a session call is far from a dead letter). But Risch might have had more leverage had he kept the heat more squarely focused on the legislators.