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Leave wage law intact.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Oregonians voted last November to raise the state's minimum wage by 40 cents to $6.90 an hour- the first increase since 1996 - and to boost it annually based on the inflation rate, which will ensure the wage keeps pace with the cost of living.

Now, some Republican lawmakers, prodded by lobbyists representing restaurant, agricultural and small-business interests, propose eliminating the yearly cost-of-living escalator, while leaving the one-time increase in effect.

It doesn't seem to matter much to them that a majority of voters made it clear they want steady, methodical increases in the minimum wage. Or that many Oregonians viewed Measure 25 as an important tool for helping low-income workers in a state that too often has led the nation in unemployment and hunger rates.

These legislators - and the lobbyists who have their rapt attention - believe they have a superior understanding. "We feel like the voters weren't fully aware there was a consumer price index clause in the bill," said state Rep. Betsy Close, chairwoman of the House Business, Labor and Consumer Affairs Committee. Close's panel recently conducted an "invitation-only" hearing on House Bill 2624, which would eliminate the automatic increases.

It seems to matter little to Close and other supporters of HB 2624 that a majority of voters supported Measure 25, or that it was placed on the ballot by a coalition of community organizations, churches and labor unions that formed to address issues of economic security affecting Oregon families.

Those issues remain as troubling as they were last fall: Last year an estimated 100,000 hard-working families survived on incomes of less than $13,500 a year. Many worked at minimum-wage jobs - nursery workers, janitors, delivery drivers, dishwashers, cannery workers, motel maids, security guards and convenience store clerks. They struggled to cover the costs of housing, utilities, child care, transportation and, all too often, food. Since the late 1970s, poverty among working families with children in this state has doubled to one out of every seven households - a statistic that should trouble every Oregonian.

Supporters of H.B. 2624 say the annual cost-of-living increases threatens the survival of farms, nurseries and small businesses. They warn that jobs will disappear as companies close or move to states with lower minimum wages.

Sounds frightening. But experience suggests that job losses will be minimal. Other factors, such as market conditions and the economy, play a far greater role in both job loss and creation. A recent study by the Oregon Center for Public Policy determined that the state's last three-stage increase in the minimum wage did not result in significant job losses.

Moreover, negative impacts from minimum wage hikes are offset by the fact that the money flows directly back into local economies. Minimum wage earners don't send their dollars winging off to the Caymans; they plunk them down to buy groceries and hand them over to pay rent.

Another argument that helped sway voters last fall was the prospect of regular incremental increases replacing the often major, lurching adjustments that occur after the minimum wage is left unchanged for years at a time.

This newspaper endorsed Measure 25 with one qualification: We would have preferred a cap on cost-of-living increases as a safeguard against potential periods of runaway inflation.

The Legislature may indeed find that it needs to make such a change if that problem arises. A cap would keep faith with the voters by leaving a mechanism for annual adjustments intact, and imposing one would not pose a procedural problem since Measure 25 was statutory and not a constitutional amendment.

But for now, state lawmakers should back off and honor the will of the voters who approved Measure 25 last fall.
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Title Annotation:Bill would delete tie to annual inflation rate; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 29, 2003
Words:616
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