Oregon minimum wage hike debated – The Register-Guard
SALEM — Proponents of a big increase in Oregon’s minimum wage — potentially raising it to as much as $15 an hour — got the chance to make their case to state lawmakers on Monday.
During a packed evening hearing that followed a brief rally inside the Capitol’s rotunda, low-income workers from throughout the state shared stories of struggling to make ends meet.
Linda Peterson, a home health care provider who works in Eugene, said her wages haven’t kept up with rising costs in her 14 years at her job. She said she now can’t afford to turn on her heat in the winter and often has to choose which utility bills she can pay.
“We can’t make it” without government subsidies, Peterson said. “When you work hard, you should have the dignity to be able to pay all your basic needs.”
Meanwhile, business owners and lobbyists, mainly representing agriculture and the restaurant industry, argued that a large raise in the minimum wage will lead employers to lay off workers and drive up the cost of goods and services.
Jennifer Euwer, a pear farmer near Hood River, said she understood “the reasons we’re talking about raising the minimum wage.”
But, she added, “it’s not going to help the people in Oregon who will lose their jobs if it goes up this much.”
Different proposals before the Legislature this session would increase the minimum wage from $9.25 an hour now to between $10.70 and $15 an hour, based on various timetables over the next three years.
Currently, Oregon’s minimum wage, which is increased annually based on inflation, is the second highest in the nation. But several states will reach $10 an hour or more by 2016 and pro-worker groups across the nation are leading a high-profile campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Oregon lawmakers also are weighing a bill that would lift the current state pre-emption that blocks local governments from setting their own minimum wage.
The issue has revealed a split among Democratic leaders in the Legislature. Democrats hold big majorities in both chambers.
On Monday, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, both Portland Democrats, strongly endorsed a “substantial” increase in the minimum wage.
In an impassioned speech before fellow lawmakers, Kotek contrasted the nearly 150,000 Oregonians who make minimum wage, grossing about $19,000 a year if they work full-time, with “the wealthiest,” whose earnings have “skyrocketed” in recent years.
“We have an opportunity and the solemn obligation to promote a fairer playing field,” she said.
Rosenbaum struck a similar chord, saying that a minimum wage increase would lead to pay raises for other low-income workers as well.
“A huge group of Oregonians … are not seeing the results of (the economic recovery’s) renewed prosperity, and it’s becoming harder and harder for these workers to simply afford to live in Oregon,” she said.
But Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat, opposes an increase this year, largely because lawmakers already appear set to pass a mandatory statewide paid sick leave policy.
“I’m not going to do minimum wage this session,” Courtney said at an event in Southern Oregon late last month, his only public statement on the issue. “The reason is: I do think you have to be careful about how far you go with these things because of small-business owners and economics of small businesses.
“I will deal with the heat,” he said.
Courtney’s opposition is significant because, as Senate president, he can effectively block bills from votes on the Senate floor.
Gov. Kate Brown, a potential arbiter on the issue, didn’t take a firm stance when asked about the debate Monday.
“While the governor is generally supportive of increasing the minimum wage, at this point she’s content to let the issue play out in the legislative process,” said Melissa Navas, a Brown spokeswoman, in an email.
Proponents, including some small business owners, argued Monday that raising the minimum wage brings a host of benefits, including additional consumer spending, which stimulates the economy, and a reduction in the need for government safety net programs.
Mary King, an economics professor at Portland State University, said the policy “is the single most important step” lawmakers can take to reduce poverty.
“Studies have shown that there is a negligible impact on businesses when they all have to do the same thing” in raising wages, she said.
But opponents said a large minimum wage increase would make Oregon less competitive with other states, particularly in agriculture and businesses that export goods.
Valerie Stinson, a human resources manager at The Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant chain, added that it would mean her business hired fewer high school students or employees with less experience.
“This will have a negative ripple effect for businesses,” she said.
Sen. Alan Bates, an Ashland Democrat, called attention to one of the problems with a big increase in the minimum wage: some low-income workers could see a decrease in their net spending power as they lost eligibility for some government assistance programs — a phenomenon known as the “benefits cliff.”
Bates, who has backed a smaller minimum wage hike, said lawmakers need to move toward “getting people away from depending on government to make a living and really become self-sufficient.”
But, he added, “if you raise minimum wage too high and you drop people off Medicaid, the cost of (buying private) health care to them is unsupportable.” Medicaid — which is run in Oregon as the Oregon Health Plan — is the government-funded health insurance program for low-income people.
If lawmakers are unable to pass a statewide minimum wage increase this year, Kotek said that eliminating the state ban on local minimum wage increases could be a backup plan.
“I don’t think it’s fair for the state to say to a community such as Portland that might want to raise the minimum wage to wait,” she said. “Housing costs are high in Portland and I don’t think the state wants to be standing in the way of that change.”
Meanwhile, some advocates for a $15 minimum wage say they will go to voters with a ballot measure in 2016 if lawmakers balk at making the increase this year.
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