By Ian K. Kullgren
The Oregon House on Thursday approved historic increases to the minimum wage, rebuffing outcry from businesses to deliver what could be the highest statewide rate in nation.
The vote followed a chaotic five-hour floor debate that featured an unusual spasm of public rage, as working-class protesters unleashed fury on lawmakers for not taking up a higher, $15 minimum wage this session or pushing stronger housing reforms.
Demonstrators chanted outside Gov. Kate Brown's office and in the Senate. They pounded on the outer walls of the House chamber, forcing Democratic leaders to halt deliberations and barricade lawmakers inside the chamber.
The tumult subsided, giving way to four hours of grinding debate, after which the bill passed 32-26.
"No one who works hard living in Oregon or America should live in poverty," Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said in an impassioned speech on the floor. "We are obligated and capable of taking courageous steps to help Oregon workers and their families."
It came as a major win for Democrats and Brown on her anniversary as governor, positioning Oregon as a leader in a national push, led by labor unions, to raise wages for the middle class. All told, the bill would give pay increases to more than 100,000 workers, with some receiving nearly $6 more an hour.
The six-year plan would raise wages starting this July, to $9.75 in urban areas and $9.50 in a lower, rural tier. Increases would top out in 2022 at $14.75 inside Portland's urban growth boundary, $13.25 in midsize counties and $12.50 in so-called "frontier" areas.
Brown has five days to approve the bill once it lands on her desk. In a statement, Brown said she planned to sign it. But she also didn't rule out another minimum wage plan that's emerged from a bipartisan group of independent-minded lawmakers.
"I started this conversation last fall, bringing stakeholders together to craft a workable proposal," Brown said in the statement. "I look forward to signing this bill."
In the meantime, lawmakers involved with the alternative proposal promised to quickly introduce a plan that would, as they see it, better cushion small businesses.
"We must work immediately to follow Senate Bill 1532 with a bill that addresses some of these concerns," said Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay. McKeown said her no vote came with hope that, "in a few days, I can vote on a minimum wage bill that Oregon needs and Oregon deserves."
Rep. John Lively of Springfield was the only other Democrat to vote no. Rep. Brent Barton, D-Oregon City, an attorney, was excused to attend a deposition.
Regardless of the outcome, Thursday's vote was a testament to Democrats' tight grip on the Legislature. Leaders proved that they can muscle through landmark policy against great obstacles, in this case ballot measure threats on the left, seeking higher wages on a faster timeline, and fervent opposition on the right.
It was an achievement that seemed unreachable a year ago for minimum wage advocates, after more than a dozen bills withered in the 2015 session.
Most moderate Democrats voted yes, including Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, one of the architects of the alternative plan.
"I vomited the first time I had to let an employee go," Clem told the chamber. "I don't think we're quite there on getting this right. I think it's a start."
But the debate took an unexpected turn just minutes after it started, when protesters -- including Jamie Partridge, a Portland labor activist and a chief petitioner for the $15 ballot measure -- unfurled a banner calling the state's housing crisis an emergency. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, gaveled them down, and the demonstrators were escorted from the chamber.
Others staged a sit-in at Brown's office, chanting "black lives matter" and "restore local control," a call to lift the ban on local wage increases -- the current bill does not -- and to pass rent control provisions.
Later, protesters moved toward the House chamber, banging on the outer walls with shoes and and open palms.
Inside, a noise like low, rolling thunder drowned out lawmakers' floor speeches. Kotek put the chamber at ease and then barred lawmakers from leaving under a "call of the House," a procedural move designed to preserve a quorum.
Sergeants locked the chamber doors, and representatives nervously milled around like penned livestock. Armed Oregon State Police officers stood watch outside.
Thursday's protests also cleared the floor the Senate, which had invited the family of former Senate President Brady Adams of Grants Pass to the chamber for a solemn memorial.
The Senate's current president, Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he ordered lawmakers and staffers off the floor after the chamber's galleries "went wild" with chants and shouts.
"It was a very dramatic shock and awe experience, not to be melodramatic," Courtney said in an interview. "It really frightened a lot of legislators. They were frightened. We didn't know what was happening out there."
The protesters dispersed after several minutes and the House reconvened.
Republicans gave a pointed, hours-long critique of the proposal, saying it would cause layoffs in the poorest rural areas and threaten the health of the state budget.
"Do you believe that no one will be laid off? Seriously?" said House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, speaking directly to Democrats. "We've got to look you in the eye and we've got to ask -- do you really believe that no one will lose a job? Do you believe prices will not go up?"
They quarreled with Democrats over whether the bill would give raises to lawmakers, who at $23,000 a year don't make much more than the the minimum. Legal opinions produced by both sides said that could happen by 2021 or 2022 without larger cost of living increases.
Minimum wage vote protest Activists protest outside from Gov. Kate Brown's office on Thursday, Feb. 18, to demand a $15 minimum wage and more aggressive housing policy, including rent control.
Republicans, though they'd have to run in 2020 to receive any potential raise, made their point by lining up to declare conflicts of interest one by one.
It's uncertain whether the bill will be enough to stop ballot measures for $13.50 and 15. Left-leaning groups have expressed tepid support for the new proposal, saying it won't be enough to meet families' needs.
"We're really happy to see the Legislature has stepped up and provided Oregonians and much-needed raise," said Heather Conroy, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503, one of the groups behind a $13.50 ballot measure. "It's certainly not everything we were striving for. We were certainly striving for $13.50 or $15 statewide."
She said the coalition hasn't decided whether to pull back the ballot measure.
A spokesman for Defend Oregon Jobs, a group of businesses that is against any minimum wage increase, said he hoped Democrats would come out against the $15 measure.
"Backers of the $15 ballot measure told legislators they have yet to decided to drop their initiative efforts," Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in a statement. "We're counting on the governor and Democratic leaders to oppose any such measure."
Denis C. Theriault contributed to this report.
(c)2016 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)