Sweeney's minimum-wage ballot bid seen as shrewd

Posted: October 01, 2012

When New Jersey Democrats attempted to legalize same-sex marriage this year, Senate President Stephen Sweeney refused to heed Gov. Christie's call to let the voters weigh in.

But now, Sweeney (D., Gloucester) wants voters to decide whether to raise the state's minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and provide for automatic cost-of-living increases in the future, a method that would circumvent the Republican governor.

Christie, who said he opposes automatic increases in the minimum wage rate, called Sweeney's plan "truly ridiculous" Monday. He urged lawmakers to send him a bill instead.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), who championed a raise earlier this year, worries that Sweeney's plan will take too long. New Jersey's minimum-wage workers would not get an increase until 2014 under Sweeney's plan, when the rate would rise $1.

But minimum-wage advocates and political observers called Sweeney's plan astute. Nine out of the 10 states that regularly increase their minimum-wage rates based on inflation did so after voters, not lawmakers, agreed to it.

While legalizing gay marriage tends to fail at the polls, voters favor minimum-wage increases.

"Whenever it goes to the ballot, it does quite well," said Jen Kern, who is managing the campaign to increase the minimum wage for an advocacy group called the National Employment Law Project, based in New York.

Ballot questions also energize voters, said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. A gay marriage question could have driven conservative voters to the polls, but a minimum-wage increase on the 2013 ballot, when Christie is up for reelection, will likely energize Democrats.

It also might help Sweeney and state Democrats patch up their relationship with unions, which was disrupted when the politicians supported Christie's requirement that public employees pay more toward their pension and benefits.

"This is serving as a flag which they can all rally around," Harrison said. "It's being used to drive participation. That's what this is really about."

About 41,000 workers in New Jersey make $7.25 an hour, the minimum-wage rate required by the federal government. Thirty states, including Pennsylvania, have set their wages to that benchmark. Others, such as Connecticut, Ohio and Florida, pay a higher rate.

Increasing the minimum wage has been a priority for Oliver, who represents some of New Jersey's poorest urban areas. Her bill would initially raise the wage to $8.50 and would index the rate to the Consumer Price Index, which measures changes in the cost of living. The measure passed the Assembly in May but stalled in the Senate after Christie said he would veto it.

Oliver said she was willing to forgo the automatic increases to bump workers' pay as soon as possible.

"I do not want us to waste precious months quibbling and debating how it should get done," she said last week. "This is not a livable wage in New Jersey. With each passing day, we are besieged with more information about the dire situations that New Jersey families are in."

But Sweeney refused to move the bill forward without a clause to provide for automatic increases.

"Mine will take longer, but mine is a permanent fix," Sweeney said last week. "These are people stuck in a cycle of poverty."

His plan is to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 by 2014 and include regular increases in the following years.

Oliver said she was set to meet with Senate leaders this week to discuss their agenda for the fall.

To bypass Christie, the Democratic-controlled Legislature must pass a referendum question that would then be put to the voters. If the Legislature approves the measure by a three-fifths vote in each chamber, it would become law once voters approve it. But if Democrats fail to achieve a three-fifths vote, it must pass the Legislature by a majority vote twice - once to put it on the ballot, and again should voters approve the measure.

At the current rate, working 40 hours a week, a minimum-wage worker in New Jersey would make just over $15,000 a year. That's just $4,000 above the federal poverty rate for a single person, let alone a family.

Given New Jersey's expensive housing, antipoverty advocates say, workers need to earn more than $44,700 to keep a family of four out of poverty.

In some communities, the living wage is approaching $60,000 for a family of four, said Bruce Davidson, director of the Lutheran Office of Government Ministries.

"New jobs are just not offering that kind of salary," Davidson said.

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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