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Three Neighboring States Go Three Ways On Minimum Wage

Posters displaying the minimum wages in Oregon, Washington and Idaho

Three states, three ways of addressing whether and how to raise the statewide minimum wage. In Oregon this coming Monday, the state House takes up a three-tiered wage increase that passed the state Senate last Thursday. In Washington state, activists are preparing to hit the streets for a statewide initiative. Meanwhile, Idaho lawmakers are mulling whether to block both a statewide and any possible local increases in the minimum wage.

Labor and community activists have filed citizen initiatives to significantly raise the state minimum wage in Oregon and Washington. In Oregon, that has set off a scramble in the state legislature.

State legislatures vs the ballot box

Democratic Sen. Michael Dembrow of Portland called on lawmakers to pass an alternative that could potentially win broad acceptance and head off a ballot fight.

"Look, the easiest thing for us to do would be to duck this issue, to take a walk and let it go to the ballot,” Dembrow said. “But that, colleagues, is not why we are here.”

The Democratic majority in the Oregon legislature and Gov. Kate Brown are backing a phased-in approach that raises wages slower than two proposed initiatives. The pending measure in Salem would increase the minimum wage to as much as $14.75 per hour over the next six years.

The measure sets up three different minimum wages: One for the Portland metro area, $1.25 lower for other urbanized counties, and $2.25 lower than Portland for the most rural counties in the state. There are no guarantees the groups backing the minimum wage initiative campaigns will deem this plan sufficient to get them to suspend their petition drives.

In Olympia, Washington lawmakers briefly considered trying to head off their state's ballot measure too. Several Democrats proposed to phase-in a $12 statewide minimum wage along with paid sick leave. That’s lower than the $13.50 minimum with paid leave in an initiative set to begin circulating petitions next month.

Bad for business?

Neither is acceptable to major businesses groups. Jan Gee lobbies in Olympia for independent supermarket owners. She said any big increase in the minimum wage would drive away low margin businesses like groceries.

"At my recent board meeting and legislative visits it was described as, 'Do I want to get shot in the arm and get maimed or do I want a shot direct to the heart,'" Gee said.

Gee addressed state lawmakers at the same hearing as an in-home caregiver who is one of the faces of the ballot measure campaign in Washington. Sharon Kitchel of Olympia is still working at age 73.

"I currently am paid $12.20 per hour. I face daily hard choices,” Kitchel said. “For instance, what do I give up this month to stay in my small rented house? I can only afford to heat two rooms. Which two rooms do I heat?"

The so-named Raise Up Washington campaign needs to gather nearly 250,000 valid voter signatures to qualify their proposed minimum wage increase for the statewide ballot in November.

Idaho’s wage border

If both Washington and Oregon vote for a higher minimum wage, that will set up a cliff of sorts along the Idaho border. Idaho sticks to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Activists such as Adrienne Evans of Boise have tried for several years to get Idaho legislators to entertain an increase, to no avail.

"We need to stop pretending we live in isolation,” Evans said. “What will happen -- and is happening -- will only exacerbate the problem that Idaho faces today. We have more young people leaving the state because they cannot get ahead."

The president of the Idaho Retailers Association is less concerned by the disparity between neighboring states. Pam Eaton said it might impact wages in border cities but is unlikely to reach deep into Idaho.

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Salem Correspondent Chris Lehman contributed to this report.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.