By Pat Caldwell
For the Enterprise
JOHN DAY – There was no mistaking the tone of frustration at the edge of Oregon Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli’s voice last week when he reviewed the recently concluded session of the Oregon Legislature.
During the short, 32-day session often punctuated by demonstrations of Democratic political muscle, Ferrioli said, GOP elected leaders managed to secure a few victories. However, he conceded the session was the most challenging since he entered politics more than 20 years ago.
“This was the worst,” he said.
Ferrioli pointed to the passage of House Bill 4040 – a mandate that endorsed a decision last fall by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to remove wolves from the state’s endangered species list – as one clear political triumph.
He also said the fact no new gun legislation was passed was a positive feature of the session. Ferrioli also lauded the unity of Republican lawmakers during debates over key issues.
“Republicans stayed together. We used procedure to slow the process down long enough for citizens to understand, at least in part, what was happening,” he said.
Yet the Oregon Senate Minority Leader, whose district includes Malheur County, said the negatives aspects of the session far outweighed its positives.
Case in point, he said, was the passage of the minimum wage hike. Ferrioli said the new law will hurt rural Oregon.
“I think that is probably the greatest threat to the sustainability of rural communities,” he said of the bill.
Ferrioli isn’t alone regarding the impact of the new wage edict. Rep. Cliff Bentz, (R-Ontario) has also criticized the new law as have a majority Oregon Republican lawmakers.
Ferrioli said the wage bill sends the wrong message to Oregonians.
“I also believe if you were looking around for an object lesson in unintended consequences that is a great example,” he said of the bill.
The new law consists of three levels, or tiers, of minimum wage for Oregon. Each tier “tops out” in 2022. For example, the minimum wage rate in the Portland area will climb only to stabilize in 2022 at $14.75.
In Oregon counties facing economic decline the rate will top out at $12.50 an hour by 2022. Across the rest of the state the rate will stabilize at $13.50 an hour in 2022. For Eastern Oregon, the first wage boost will kick off July 1 when rate climbs to $9.50 an hour.
Ferrioli said while he sees an array of problems with the new minimum wage hike, one of the most acute issues revolves around how the mandate will impact communities dependent upon the economic engine of agriculture. The new wage could ignite an effort by some firms to adopt more mechanization to offset costs, he said.
“I think we will lose infrastructure capacity over it. If you are working in a rural area connected to animal husbandry or food processing or any of those jobs, those are the ones most susceptible to mechanization. If you are in the food processing business, you are looking to move,” he said.
Ferrioli said the choice for many businesses in the wake of the new wage law will be simple.
“If Idaho labor costs are at $7.50 (an hour) and Oregon is $9.50 an hour, and if onions and potatoes can be lifted mechanically – if you are a packer, why would you keep your business in Oregon?” he asked.
Ferrioli said the wage boost will also impact other areas of Oregon.
“Everything in the economy is connected to everything else. You can’t promise free stuff without figuring out how to pay for it. So it isn’t just rural Oregon that will be hammered, or folks on fixed incomes that will watch prices go up,” he said.
Ferrioli said he worries the most about small businesses, an ingredient to the economy he considers to be critical.
“Now they (small businesses) are going to have to deal with this mandatory increase in wage and many of them are not making a profit now. They are getting mugged. Those business owners provide 80 percent of the jobs in Oregon and they are getting mugged and I am sick of it,” he said.
Ferrioli said lawmakers secured a chance during the session to give the minimum wage hike a methodical review.
He said if it had gone through the Joint Ways and Means Committee, “we might have a completely different proposal than we adopted.”
Ferrioli said the passage of the minimum wage bill was just the most obvious symptom of a larger problem.
“Oregonians are being badly served by an undemocratic system in Salem that is taking care of its cronies. It is not Democratic versus Republican, it is a gang in charge in Salem that is fleecing the public,” he said.