Portland's Minimum-Wage Increase Hinges on Skeptical Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney

Courtney’s opposition reveals the difference between Portland and the rest of the state—and it could fracture the fragile consensus forming around a wage increase.

The drumbeat for a $15-an-hour minimum wage sounds deafening in Portland—even inexorable.

Mayoral front-runner Ted Wheeler has called for an increase in the minimum wage, though he won't specify a dollar figure. So has the City Club of Portland, whose members are political tastemakers for the city's bourgeoisie. Even local employers, like grocer New Seasons Market and pie-slingers Hotlips Pizza, are on board.

And last week, minimum-wage activists got their strongest signal yet that a wage hike is imminent: Gov. Kate Brown pledged to make raising the minimum wage a priority in the Oregon Legislature's 2016 short session.

The backing of activists, prosperous businesses and a Democratic governor isn't surprising. Neither is the state's restaurant lobby pumping the brakes.

But both advocates and foes must now shift their focus away from Portland. Any minimum-wage increase–to $15 an hour, or even $13.50—requires either a statewide vote or an act of state lawmakers.

Brown is pressing the Legislature to act, but her plan depends on the support of a cranky downstate Democrat who has killed $15-an-hour wages before—and says he'll do it again.

"We're not going for $13.50 or $15," says Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem). "If we increase the wage, I want to see a minimum wage that has a floor—less than $13.50. 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."

Oregon has the second-highest state minimum wage in the nation at $9.25 per hour—behind only Washington, whose minimum wage is $9.47—a result of 2002's Measure 25, which indexed Oregon's minimum to the consumer price index.

But Oregon also has a pre-emption law on the books that prevents local governments from setting their own minimum wages—a law passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2001. Defenders of the law say it's better to have one minimum wage rather than a patchwork of wages, which might ultimately harm Oregon's economy.

But advocates are ready for a higher wage: More than a dozen bills were introduced in 2015's legislative session—everything from graduated increases to $15 to lifting the pre-emption law.

Courtney allowed Senate Bill 610 to die in committee this summer. It would have increased the Oregon minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018, and was perhaps the state's best chance to pass minimum-wage-related legislation this year.

Courtney's opposition reveals the difference between Portland and the rest of the state—and it could fracture the fragile consensus forming around a wage increase.

"Oregon is really two Oregons," says House Minority Leader Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte). "There's the Portland metro area—which has recovered from the Great Recession. The other part of the state is much more rural, much slower in recovering."

McLane, who represents a district 150 miles from Portland, is a vocal opponent of a "one-size-fits-all minimum-wage increase." But he says he might support legislation that allows Portland to raise its minimum wage while keeping the ceiling in place for the rest of the state.

But advocates for a minimum wage are wary of a compromise molded in the state Capitol.

"We're really skeptical," says Justin Norton-Kertson, an organizer with 15 Now PDX. "It is such a short session for what is a really controversial issue. I think anything that passed would have carve-outs. We have to ask: What is being given up for this to pass in the short session?

"We'd much rather see it go to the ballot," says Norton-Kertson, "so we can get $15 across the state."

Brown's office says the governor is committed to making a deal on a wage hike. "We need to consider the amount of increase, timing, and flexibility," says spokeswoman Melissa Navas.

Courtney says he's willing to talk about giving Portland a higher wage than the rest of Oregon by possibly introducing what he calls a "spot pre-emption lift"—which would lift the pre-emption in areas of the state with strong enough economies to handle a higher wage—but pledges to doom anything more ambitious.

"Portland has a powerful economic engine and deserves a much higher wage," Courtney says, "but this issue of one size doesn't fit all is real."

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