SALEM, Ore. -- Oregon is trailblazing a national debate with a proposal that would not only make the state's minimum wage for all workers the highest in the U.S., but also set the threshold through a unique tiered system based on geography.
As the federal minimum wage has sat unchanged since the start of the Great Recession, Oregon is expected to follow the lead of more than a dozen other states that have raised the rate within their borders since 2014.
Another dozen or so are considering taking up the issue this year, either through legislative action or ballot initiative, as issues of wage inequality and middle-class incomes have climbed to the forefront of presidential campaigns by Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton.
State lawmakers in Oregon are set to vote Thursday on whether to start a series of gradual increases over the course of six years. Oregon's current $9.25 an hour minimum - already one of the highest in the nation - would jump to $14.75 in metro Portland, $13.50 in smaller cities and $12.50 in rural communities by 2022.
Those minimums would dethrone Massachusetts - where the statewide rate will climb to $11 an hour next year - from the top spot, according to D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, which has been tracking wage increases across the nation.
Oregon's regional approach aims to balance the needs of the rapidly growing urban powerhouse of Portland with the state's struggling farming communities, which have long been deeply divided by their economic, cultural and political differences.
"Oregon has always been at the forefront of new ideas in the country. We were the first to actually have a minimum wage," said Rep. Paul Holvey, a Democrat from Eugene, Ore. "We're trying to move people to where they can reach closer to that self-sufficiency."
Division over the minimum wage - currently at $7.25 in federal law - is often split along party lines and pits low-wage workers against business groups, as has been seen in Oregon this year.
The Oregon plan would follows moves in states such as Massachusetts, California and Vermont that recently boosted statewide minimums above $10. That stands in stark contrast to more conservative states such as Idaho, which has blocked previous efforts to raise its minimum beyond the federal level, and Arizona, where lawmakers are considering a bill that would cut state funding to municipalities that set a local minimum wage.
David Cooper, an economic analyst the Economic Policy Institute, said he applauds the Oregon Legislature for its creative tiered approach, but did express hesitation.
"I think any time you create these sorts of somewhat arbitrary geographic districts, that's when you can create opportunities for some sort of economic disruption," he said. "I would prefer the whole state got to the same wage level but at a slower pace by region so that everyone is held to the same standard.
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