By Pat Caldwell
For the Malheur Enterprise
ONTARIO – State Rep. Cliff Bentz said he believes the passage of the state’s minimum wage law during the last legislative session will strike a serious blow to business in Eastern Oregon but the longtime Malheur County lawmaker isn’t ready to throw in the towel.
At least not yet.
Bentz, whose sprawling Oregon District 60 includes Malheur County, said he believes the new minimum wage law can be, and will be, altered in the future.
“We have the support in the (Capitol) building for modifications to the bill,” he said. “Many of my Democratic friends came up to me and said, ‘We know your part of the state will be badly hurt. And we will help you change it.’”
Bentz said he is committed to an effort to alter the new law. He said he will set up what he calls a “clearing house” at his office in Ontario as part of a broader, public education campaign to illustrate the impact of the new law for counties like Malheur.
“Many have no idea how damaging it will be, and it is incumbent on us to show them,” he said.
The bill ratified by the Oregon Legislature will push the minimum wage up in 18 rural counties, including Malheur County, from $9.25 to $9.50 on July 1.
After that, the wage will climb by 50 cents every July 1 during the next six years. The wage in Eastern Oregon will eventually top out at $12.50 in July 2022.
The bill also contains two other categories of wage boosts, one for the Portland area – where it will peak at $14.75 an hour in 2022 – and one hike that impacts Eugene, Salem, Bend and other areas of Oregon.
Bentz said voters need to get involved in the effort to modify the bill as well.
“It is absolutely essential people stand up and say, ‘this is ridiculous, and it won’t work.’ The point is, if we don’t speak up no one will know, so I will be speaking up. Part of my plan is that I do what I have been doing which is to make sure the state of Oregon knows that this is extremely damaging,” he said.
One acute worry for Bentz and other lawmakers opposed to the new mandate is how the law will create an unequal business playing field between Oregon and nearby states like Idaho. The Idaho minimum wage is now $7.25 an hour.
“It was an extremely negative thing for the part of the state adjacent to Idaho. The minimum wage (law) is truly job damaging and is just really bad for Oregon,” he said.
If there was one bright spot during the legislative battle over the minimum wage it was the involvement in the debate by local Malheur County residents. Many people traveled to Salem to voice their opposition to the bill and Bentz said that kind of community action was important.
“The community involvement did make an enormous difference. It didn’t make it go away but it sure helped. The involvement of people coming over for rallies at the Capitol steps is the reason why we ended up with a third tier (of the law). This community was heard,” he said.
Bentz said another troubling element to the minimum wage law is the perception gulf between some lawmakers who pushed the bill and others from rural areas of the state.
“They don’t believe the assertions I’ve made about people getting laid off and businesses closing. They don’t understand how low the margins are in small communities,” he said.