SALEM — Senate Democrats' minimum wage plan cleared its first legislative hurdle Friday when a committee swiftly sent it to the floor for a vote of the full chamber.
The proposal — a three-tiered system that would give Oregon the highest wage rates in the nation — now faces its first major test in the 30-member Senate, expected to vote on the bill next week.
The party-line vote in the Senate's workforce committee marked lawmakers' first real action on minimum wage after more than a year of talk. While Democrats acknowledged the proposal won't please everyone, they said it's the best chance at finding middle ground.
"Is this proposal perfect? Indeed, it is not," said Senate President Pro Tem Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland. "Politics being the art of the possible, a lot of work has been done on this proposal."
The plan would raise wages to $14.75 in Portland, $13.50 in midsize cities such as Eugene and Bend and $12.50 in sparsely populated areas by 2022. Oregon's current minimum wage is $9.25, two dollars higher than the federal minimum.
The plan was unveiled by Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, only on Thursday. It was presented as Senate Democrats' alternative to a deal reached between Gov. Kate Brown and business leaders for $14.50 in Portland and $13.25 everywhere else.
While it may win support from moderate rural Democrats, it seemed to do little to pacify some of the state's largest business groups. In fact, it may have enraged them.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, acknowledged that businesses were particularly displeased with the latest plan, saying they'd pushed hardest for the two-tier approach in the governor's first two proposals.
"That's what the business community wanted," she said. "They have not been a fan of the three tiers."
On Friday, a business coalition launched a campaign, Defend Oregon Jobs, that aims to derail the Senate plan — or any minimum wage bill — then move on to defeat ballot measures for $13.50 and $15 in November.
In a press release, the group said the Senate proposal would kill more than 66,000 jobs in seven years.
"The ballot measures are being used as a fear tactic in the building,"Jason Brandt, President and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, said in an interview. "The reality is, it isn't a foregone conclusion that it's going to pass. There's never been such an extreme wage proposal anywhere in the nation. I think Oregonians will understand what's being proposed is too high."
Republicans, too, remain opposed.
"The impact on this is going to be negative in a lot of ways," Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, told Democrats on the workforce committee. "It's going to hurt some of the very people you're trying to help."
Union leaders, meanwhile, threatened to push forward with their ballot measures if lawmakers don't raise wages to at least $13.50. And immigrants rights' groups argue that lower wages in rural areas could leave farm workers — most of whom are people of color — at a disadvantage.
"It's easy for people to think, 'Oh, it's just a 15 year old who works at the pool for some extra cash,'" said Andrea Miller, executive director of Causa, an immigrant rights' group. "Actually, there are a lot of teenagers working to support their families."
The bill, if it passes the Senate, would face another hard vote in the House. Democrats have remained mostly quiet so far.
"Overall, it was the correct direction," Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene.