Pick a number, any number.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25, which for a 40-hour week – which not many minimum wage workers can count on – comes to $290 a week, or about $15,000 a year. It hasn’t been raised since 2007, back when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he’d rather kill himself than vote to raise it, although that may not be an either-or proposition.
The Oregon minimum wage is $9.25, or $390 a week, or around $20,000 a year. Indexed to rise annually, following a measure passed by voters in 2002, it’s the second-highest state rate in the country; Washington’s is $9.47.
Twenty-nine states have raised their minimum wage rates above $7.25. Recently, a $15 minimum wage was adopted by Seattle (by 2017), San Francisco (2018) and last week by Los Angeles County (2020) and New York (2018 in New York City, 2021 for the rest of the state). Chicago’s minimum is now $10, rising to $13 in 2019.
Along with any number, pick any date.
Advocates came to this year’s session of the Oregon legislature also seeking a $15 minimum, without success. A few weeks before the end of the session, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, proposed a $13 minimum, with cities having the power to raise it higher. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, wasn’t interested. Supporters declared they would collect signatures to put $15 on the 2016 ballot.
Last week, an alliance of Oregon labor unions and liberal groups announced a signature drive to also propose $13.50 for 2016, which is likely to have a very busy ballot.
Before then, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., hopes to force a vote on her bill for a $12 federal minimum wage, sponsored by 36 senators (including Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley), although none of them is a Republican. The Obama administration has supported a $10.10 federal minimum, although not terribly energetically.
Asked how she arrived at $12, Murray said Thursday, “I looked at what we could do for working families,” while sympathetic to the higher numbers coming out of her home state: “I support the efforts brought at the local level, but I think we need a minimum wage floor.”
She thinks that the higher minimum wages, and successful economies, of the Northwest argue for the benefits of raising the minimum: “I think our state is proving that when workers do well, businesses do well,” that when a family can afford to go out for pizza, that money goes into a local cash register.
In fact, she says of her effort to raise the federal minimum, “We’re bringing Washington state to Washington, D.C.”
The question, of course, is whether it can get there, considering Republican control of both houses of Congress and opposition to any increase, an attitude Murray traces to continuing Republican belief in “trickle-down economics.” It seems more likely that the issue will come up in the 2016 election than for a vote in the current Congress.
“I want to hear what the Republican presidential candidates have to say about this as well,” Murray said when introducing her bill in May.
“I am confident that a Democratic woman running for president knows the importance of this issue. I am not at all confident there is one Republican candidate who will say the same.”
Murray has gotten her wish, and heard plenty from the GOP candidates. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul all oppose raising the minimum wage, with Paul warning it would hurt young workers. (Most minimum earners are not teenagers at the malt shop, but over 20, many supporting other people as well.) Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker question whether there should be a federal minimum wage at all.
Current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump supports different minimums for adults and youth, although he hasn’t specified what they should be.
Among Democrats, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley back a federal $15 minimum, while Hillary Clinton supports a raise but hasn’t given a number.
On next year’s ballot, the federal debate is likely to join one or more Oregon initiatives on the subject. Last November, voters in Republicans in four Republican states raised their minimums, although none above $10. A $15 measure in Oregon might not be a slam dunk; in 2002, Oregon voters raised the minimum from $6.50 to $6.90 by only 51 percent.
Pick a number, any number.
But it should be well above $9.25.
Not to mention over $7.25.
NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 7/26/15.