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Washington state House considers raising nation's highest state minimum wage to $12 per hour

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OLYMPIA, Washington — The country's highest state minimum wage would rise to $12 an hour in the next four years under a proposal debated in a crowded Washington state House committee hearing Monday afternoon.

The bill, backed by dozens of House Democrats, is a return of a 2014 effort that never made it to the state House floor for a vote. But minimum-wage raise proposals have escalated in national prominence. In SeaTac, a citizen initiative boosted the minimum wage for hospitality and transportation employees to $15 an hour, and in Seattle, city leaders approved a phased-in increase to a $15 hourly rate. President Barack Obama last week repeated his call for an increase in the national $7.25 minimum hourly wage. Including Washington, 29 states require a higher amount per hour.

Washington, one of nine states where minimum-wage raise bills have been introduced in 2015, would go from $9.47 an hour to $12 in a series of 50-cent hikes every Jan. 1 under the bill.

House Labor Chairman Mike Sells, D-Everett, said the bill "has a lot better chance in the House" than last year's failed attempt for a $12 minimum wage because it phases in the raise slower. He is one of 41 co-sponsors of the bill, all Democrats. It could face longer odds in the Republican-led Senate, where all but one of the 20 names attached to the bill are from the minority Democrats.

In Monday's state House Labor committee hearing, workers and advocates testified that Washington's current $9.47 hourly minimum is too little to pay for life costs from food and housing to health care and education. Luke Bridges, a student and restaurant worker from Olympia, said he had recently moved back in with his mother because working 25 hours a week left him short on covering tuition. A $12 minimum wage would improve matters considerably, he said.

"Next time I'm on a date, I could afford to pay for dinner," Bridges said.

Business owners and their lobbyists answered that a minimum-wage pay hike would cut into margins and eviscerate profits.

"Everyone will raise prices on everything," said Bob Mandel, owner of a Dairy Queen in University Place.

Rep. Graham Hunt, R-Orting, said a minimum-wage hike would only lead to inflation, with retail prices increasing to cover both higher worker pay and higher charges from suppliers of wholesale products forced to do the same.

"All the other costs are going to go up, just perpetuating the problem," Hunt said.

Dan Olmstead, owner of Poverty Bay Coffee in Federal Way, told the committee he believed a minimum-wage boost would provide "more dignity and more money in their pocket" to people barely getting by. People with more walking-around money become more frequent coffee shop customers, he said.

"When the minimum wage goes up, businesses like mine do better," he said. "The costs go up, but the benefits by far outweigh the costs."

The minimum-wage plan, House Bill 1355, is scheduled for a committee vote Thursday morning.

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