SALEM — Powerful left-leaning groups lined up behind Gov. Kate Brown's new minimum wage plan Tuesday, tepidly offering support for $14.50 in Portland and $13.25 statewide.
In the first airing of Brown's scaled-back proposal, labor leaders backing ballot measures that would deliver either $13.50 or $15 an hour said they weren't enthusiastic but agreed it would still give workers much-needed relief.
"We appreciate the governor's leadership," Melissa Unger, political director for Service Employees International Union Local 503, told members of the Senate's workforce committee. "While we don't think this proposal goes far enough, we do think it will be a meaningful [raise] for the people who need it."
But they stopped short of agreeing to pull support for a $15 ballot measure. Petitioners say they've collected 30,000 of the 88,000 signature they need for the November ballot.
"After the end of session, we'll consider where we go from there," said Graham Trainor, political director for the American Federal of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations Oregon chapter.
Brown had first proposed a six-year plan for $15.50 in Portland and $13.50 everywhere else, but scaled to back as a compromise with business leaders. Oregon's current minimum wage is $9.25, two dollars higher than the federal minimum.
Brown's new proposal speeds up the first increases to this summer, when both the Portland and statewide rates would rise 50 cents, to $9.75.
Vince Porter, an economic policy adviser for Brown, told lawmakers that Brown is asking for an increase in July because workers didn't get one in 2015 — the first time in five years wages didn't rise with the Consumer Price Index. A 50-cent raise would be the biggest since 2000.
"I know we bit hard at the apple," Ramón Ramírez, president of PCUN, a Woodburn-based farm workers' union told lawmakers. "I think business did too, and we think this is a step in the right direction."
Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, introduced an amendment to exempt farmers from a higher minimum wage. It's almost certain to fail in the Democratic-led committee.
The atmosphere of Tuesday's hearing was more subdued than the last one Jan. 14, when hundreds of activists behind a $15 ballot measure flooded the Capitol. Much of it was finishing up testimony from the last meeting.
"We've had to face the reality that even with our best intentions, wages are not keeping up," said Elizabeth Nardi, director of operations for New Seasons Market. Beginning this year, New Seasons raised its starting wage to $12. "When we raise wages, our morale goes up and it is a boon to our bottom line."
Amy Ripp, a member of the Keizer City Council, said she worried raising wages would hurt businesses in her suburban community.
"This was never intended to be a living wage," Ripp said. "This bill is not just hurtful to business, but also to our local families."
The committee is set to vote Thursday on whether to send the bill to the Senate floor.