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Originally published September 13, 2012 at 9:24 PM | Page modified September 14, 2012 at 2:19 PM

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Truth Needle: Two truths add up to false ad claim

Truth Needle: A new ad accusing Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna of lobbying to raise his pay while also trying to block an increase in the minimum wage misses the mark.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The claim: A television ad paid for by Our Washington, a political-action committee funded largely by unions and the Democratic Governors Association, says Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna is not the reformer he claims to be. The ad, which began airing this week, says: "As attorney general, McKenna personally lobbied to increase his own salary up to $148,000, all while using his office to try blocking a 12-cent increase in the minimum wage."

Our finding: Mostly false.

This is one of those claims that links two truths in a way that creates a false impression.

First, the truths.

McKenna did tell a state salary commission in January 2007 that he deserved a raise. The independent commission, which approves salary increases for officials elected to state positions, invited McKenna and other officials to offer feedback on the results of a new survey that looked at job responsibilities and pay.

McKenna was earning $137,268 at the time. He did not say how much he thought he should get, but suggested "perhaps something more than 2 percent."

"This is the biggest law office, biggest law firm in the state — private or public," he told the Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. "I think the salary is frankly too low for the position compared to comparable positions, such as the Supreme Court and the United States Attorney."

The commission gave him an 8.2 percent raise in late 2007 and a 2 percent raise in 2008, increasing McKenna's salary to $151,718 over two years.

Six other state executives received the same percentage increases, while two received even more. Some of them also testified at the same hearing.

McKenna appeared before the salary commission again in 2009, when the recession had hammered state coffers. He requested, "The commission not give any raise since state employees were not even receiving a cost-of-living increase," according to official minutes from the commission meeting.

The television ad also correctly notes that McKenna, as attorney general, issued an opinion against increasing the minimum wage. But he did so three years after asking for a raise.

The timing may not matter to people opposed to either action. But linking them implies he was simultaneously asking for thousands of dollars for himself while denying minimum wage workers a raise.

Washington voters had approved an initiative a decade earlier saying that the minimum wage should increase by the rate of inflation "to maintain employee purchasing power," and that the increase should be keyed to the rate of change in the Consumer Price Index for Washington.

In September 2010, the state Department of Labor and Industries asked McKenna whether it was required to raise the minimum wage. The cost of living had declined two years earlier, and although it was increasing at the time, it hadn't yet caught up to where it was before it dropped.

McKenna's legal opinion: The state should "hold the minimum wage steady in years following a decline in the cost of living." He reasoned that increasing wages at a time when prices were still lower than they were during the last increase would give employees greater purchasing power instead of "maintaining" it. He also said the law did not permit the minimum wage to decrease when the cost of living declines.

"The explicit objective to be met, by adjusting the minimum wage rate, is to maintain employee purchasing power, not to increase it or decrease it over time," he wrote.

At the time, the minimum wage was $8.55 an hour, and was scheduled to increase by 12 cents after no increase for nearly two years during the recession.

Labor and Industries ignored McKenna's opinion, and approved the increase anyway. A coalition of business groups that included the Washington Restaurant Association and the Washington Retail Association sued the agency to block the raise. The suit was thrown out, and a wage increase to $8.67 an hour took effect on Jan. 1, 2011.

A month later, McKenna once again spoke to the salary commission about executive salaries. The committee said it had been receiving letters from officials advocating that their salaries be lowered, and a videotape of the meeting indicates that McKenna was in agreement with the sentiment, even as he told the commissioners that the law did not allow them to lower salaries.

So, while it's true that McKenna did support a raise for himself in 2007, it's a stretch to call his testimony before the commission "lobbying," especially since the commission had suggested the raise (and the others it granted) and asked for his input.

It's also true that McKenna's legal opinion on the minimum wage — if accepted by Labor and Industries — would have blocked the minimum wage increase.

But because the ad makes it seem as though both were occurring simultaneously, we find the claim mostly false.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @susankelleher.

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