Oregon should regain its maximum minimum wage

I don’t know about you, but it goads me that Washington state’s minimum wage is always a few cents higher than ours in Oregon. Every year, we of the Upper Left Edge offer Americans the highest of the lowest wages, but we’ve been second every year since 2001.

That’s not how it was supposed to be. After all, we got there first. In 1996, Oregon voters passed Measure 36, raising our minimum wage (over three years) to $6.50.

When civilization did not collapse beneath them, Washington followed our (ahem) lead in 1998 with Initiative 688, which increased their minimum wage to $6.50 over two years, but also added a cost-of-living adjustment based on the federal Consumer Price Index.

Not to be outdone, Oregon followed in 2002 with another ballot initiative, Measure 25, which decreed another statewide increase — this time to $6.90 and yes, indexed to the Consumer Price Index for every year after 2003.

But by then it was too late. Our $6.90 in 2003 was bettered by Washington’s inflation-adjusted $7.01. In 2015, Washington pays a minimum of $9.47, compared to our minimum of $9.25. That gap will only widen with time, so something must be done.

Unions and activists are pushing cities toward $15. It rolls off the tongue and fits on a bumper sticker. President Obama has attached his influence to $10.10, but Rahm Emanuel can tell you from personal experience that the president of the United States wields less power on matters such as these than most big city mayors. Mayor Emanuel has raised Chicago’s minimum to $10, on its way to $13 by 2019.

Democratic legislators in Salem seem to like $13.50, but others find something around $12 to be more palatable. Every Democrat seems able to agree that the minimum wage should be more. How much more and how quickly we get there are the only points of debate.

I don’t trust the folks who tell us $15 is correct, because I have an innate suspicion of round numbers. To me they convey a casual attitude — especially about money — that is unbecoming when mixed with police powers. Give me a number that uses all the available digits if you want me to believe you paid attention to details.

Besides, the $15 figure came from our maximum-minimum competitors to the north. After an attempt to unionize airline workers was foiled at Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport, activists put the $15 minimum on the ballot in the airport’s host city. It was easy to remember, the initiative passed, and the number stuck.

Now it’s become shorthand for the preferred remedy for income inequality. Democrats are promising it will become a central plank in their presidential platform. It won’t go away unless something better comes along.

The United States Census Bureau calculates the federal poverty level every year. Its figures are used for federal budgets, block grants, and a host of other initiatives, both public and private. They calculate that an American family of four living on $24,250 or less is officially poor. As an hourly wage, that comes to $11.66.

We want our minimum to be above any line labeled as poverty, so let’s add 10 percent to declare a non-poor minimum wage of $12.82 for 2015. That’s not a bumper sticker number; it’s a “we did our homework” number.

Now how do we get there from Oregon’s current rate of $9.25? Slowly, but certainly. Good business owners can adapt to almost any change, if they have time to make adjustments.

The safest way to bring Oregon’s minimum up to 110 percent of the national poverty level would be to double or triple the CPI cost-of-living increases every year until we reach it. But the shrewdest way would be to increase the minimum wage at the same rate each year as the nation’s top earners.

If business owners and their peers are seeing their wages increase by double digits each year, it will be difficult for them to insist their lowest paid workers shouldn’t see their benefits increase at the same rate. Quickly and quietly, Oregon can become first again.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.