“A Reckless Wager.”
A “gamble with people's futures.”
Causing “harm to the very people they are supposed to help.”
These are labels The Economist magazine recently used in discussing sharply higher increases in the minimum wage. However, instead of carefully considering the complexities of raising Oregon's already eighth-highest-in-the-nation minimum wage —which, let's not forget, increases automatically for inflation — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has decided to wager the jobs, livelihoods and businesses of Oregonians by proposing an unprecedented economic experiment: increasing the minimum wage to $15.52 an hour around Portland and $13.50 for the rest of the state.
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In a hearing on proposed minimum wage legislation in Salem recently, legislators were asked if there had been a study of the proposals to massively increase Oregon's minimum wage — either the 66-percent increase in one of the ballot measures or the 45-percent increase in the governor's proposal.
The answer was an uncomfortable silence.
The governor, when asked why she would risk damage to Eastern Oregon communities adjacent to Idaho's far lower current $7.25 an hour minimum wage, promptly said, “We have to do this because the ballot measures are so much worse.” The answer should have been, “We are reviewing the out-of-state special interest group's proposals to determine if they place the jobs and futures of Oregon's most vulnerable at risk.”
Sharply higher minimum wages pose many dangers to low- and middle-income Oregonians: Technological advances enable firms to replace people with machines. Working mothers can be forced out of social safety nets. Employers close or move. Jobs migrate to other states and countries where labor is cheaper. Poorly educated workers lose their jobs first and never get them back. Kids can't get summer jobs. Senior citizens on fixed incomes pay more for everything.
And what might be the other unknown negative consequences of such a massive structural change in labor rates? According to The Economist, “Truckloads of studies, from both America and Europe, show that at low levels — below 50 percent of median full-time income, with a lower rate for young people — minimum wages do not destroy many jobs.” But $13.50 an hour is 77 percent and $15.52 an hour is 86 percent of Oregon's median wage. Significant and harmful job destruction is a real possibility.
It's a dangerous course when political leaders, anxious to respond to shrill demands from special interest groups, ignore the high probability of severe and irreversible consequences. We can and we must call the ballot measures, and the governor's current proposal, exactly what they are — reckless bets against the market with the futures of Oregon's poorest on the table.
It's not too late for our governor to tell out-of-state special interests intent on using Oregon's most vulnerable as expendable test cases for the rest of the nation, “I will not let you cavalierly risk the jobs and safety net eligibility of the most needy in Oregon. I will not let you destroy Oregon's small businesses. I will not let you harm those on fixed incomes as these massive wage increases are passed on to the consumer. And, if during the legislative hearings on minimum wage legislation in the upcoming session, it is shown that these increases are bad for the people of Oregon, I will drop my suggested 45 percent increase and use the power of my office to try to stop the ballot measures from passing.”
Trusting the judgment of the voters this fall would be far better than passing bad legislation now that guarantees lost jobs, lost benefits and severe damage to Oregon's small businesses.
When elected leaders go off track, the voters need to speak up. Interrupt your day by calling your legislator. Call the governor. Emails work; send some. Send a letter to your paper. Facebook this guest column. Do something to show our governor that she has your support if she does right by each and every Oregonian.
You have power. I can't think of a better time to use it.
Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, Ore., is the assistant Republican leader in the House and has served in the Oregon Legislature since 2008.