Portland and rural Oregon are touched differently by big minimum wage hike

When the Oregon Legislature convenes a 2016 short session, lawmakers will confront various proposals to raise the minimum wage. And voters next November could confront multiple minimum wage increase ballot measures.

The reality of the Legislature’s coming minimum wage discussion carries at least two elements. Thanks to a 2002 ballot initiative, Oregon has a minimum wage that is the second highest in the nation. It is indexed to rise with inflation. Secondly, any discussion of abruptly hiking the minimum wage to $13.50 or $15 must reckon with Oregon’s two economies: that in Portland and that in the rest of the state.

Last week’s issue of Willamette Week reported that Senate President Peter Courtney is leery of a one-size-fits-all approach to a major minimum wage hike. Courtney recognizes there is a gulf between Portland’s economy, which is one of the hottest in the nation, and the rest of Oregon, much of which has not recovered from the Great Recession. “If we increase the wage, I want to see a minimum wage that has a floor—less than $13.50,” said Courtney. “Portland should be allowed to go big time, but I can’t have a very big minimum across the state. It’ll just crush smaller communities.”

Sen. Courtney’s skepticism is well founded. While many Portland employers would have little or no difficulty handling a large wage hike, such a boost would push many small and mid-sized businesses in smaller economies to the margin of survival and perhaps failure.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson recently led legislators on a trip around Oregon. She says: “From Ontario to Roseburg to Astoria, I’ve talked to people who say $15 is crippling. I don’t think we have anticipated all of the unforeseen consequences. I am still absorbing information.”

Gov. Kate Brown’s press aide Kristen Grainger says: “The main point she’s trying to make is she wants to make sure that it meets the needs of rural Oregon and small businesses and in Portland. She has been careful to stay away from a dollar amount.”

A nuanced solution from the Legislature would be a good thing. That would give Oregonians a landmark in the ballot initiative campaigns we an expect.

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