Wage Hike Overreaches

IT is time to give Washington's working poor a needed boost, but Initiative 688 is the wrong way to help. The Nov. 3 ballot measure proposes a 32 percent increase in the state minimum wage over two years. More radically, I-688 would legislate an automatic elevation of the wage floor beginning in 2000 and every year thereafter.

At $4.90 an hour, the state's minimum wage is currently the lowest on the West Coast and 15th lowest in the U.S. The last time the state Legislature addressed the issue was 1994. The sponsors of I-688 are right to argue that full-time, minimum-wage workers should not be relegated to lives of poverty. A reasonable increase for the 275,000 Washingtonians who fit that economic profile is due.

But the idea of mandating perpetual, annual cost-of-living adjustments to the state minimum wage is untested, unprecedented and unwise. No other state in the nation has tried it. The concept has been rejected by Congress for the federal minimum wage.

The federal government links some entitlement payments -such as Social Security benefits and military pensions - to the same rate as the cost of living. But that hardly makes a persuasive case for Washington to step ahead of the rest of the country and adopt a permanent autopilot approach to minimum-wage increases.

The "urban inflation index" put forth by I-688 would leash the fate of workers and employers in rural cities to those in Seattle, where the cost of living is highest.

In good economic times, that may seem compassionate. But when the economy sours, look out. In a period of rapid inflation - remember the 68 percent price-hike spiral between 1977-1982 - I-688 would bind employers to a base wage that could result in the opposite of what I-688 supporters intend. It could put Washington at a competitive disadvantage by pricing entry-level workers out of the labor market.

If the Legislature fails to adequately address the needs of the working poor next year, the sponsors of I-688 should go back to the drawing board. Minimum-wage workers deserve a hand up, but not by handcuffing employers forever to a faulty statistical index.