The proposal won bipartisan support, with 87 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans, and 75 percent of unaffiliated voters favoring it, according to the poll.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) wants to put the question before voters and use a constitutional amendment to ensure continued raises in the wage. His proposal, which will be under review Monday in the Senate Budget Committee, would circumvent Gov. Christie. The Republican governor said earlier this year he would not sign a bill that included automatic increases.
"The governor's made it clear who will not sign this," Sweeney said. "If you live in New Jersey, you recognize that $7.25 isn't getting it done. It's basically keeping people in poverty."
But some argue that changing the constitution would make it hard for legislators to respond in an emergency. That message resonates in a state with nearly 10 percent unemployment. Budget officials have had a hard time pinning down month-to-month revenue this year, leading to frequent adjustments in the budget for 2013.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union) called Sweeney's idea "reckless."
"Constitutional amendments are reserved for issues beyond those that are wage contracts," he said. "When you put a level of pay in the constitution and then you put it on autopilot, you effectively take it out of the Legislature's hands to look at the economic times and see what is the best balance."
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), who represents some of New Jersey's poorest urban areas, said it was more important to raise the wage now and worry about future raises later. Sweeney's plan might not reach the ballot until November 2014. If his proposal passes with less than a three-fifths majority in both chambers, the Legislature must approve it a second time in a successive legislative year.
Oliver's bill, which would raise the minimum wage to $8.50, passed the Assembly in May. The bill stalled in the Senate after Christie said he didn't support Oliver's plan to index the wage to inflation, a clause she's willing to drop for now.
Raising the wage as soon as possible is "the right thing to do," Oliver said. "That's why I made it a top commitment earlier this year and why I continue to want to see the Assembly-approved bill sent to the governor so we can see what he decides and determine the next step."
Thirty-two states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, currently pay the federal minimum rate of $7.25 an hour. The remaining 18 states pay a higher wage, and 10 of them offer annual increases according to changes in cost of living. Four states have written those regular increases into their constitutions: Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Nevada.
Business leaders argue that the economy is too fragile to shoulder any additional costs to employers.
"If they don't have the money to pay for a wage increase, they're going to have to cut from somewhere," said Stefanie Riehl, assistant vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. "Unfortunately, that can mean cutting hours or even laying off people."
But voters sympathized more with struggling families, according to the poll. Sixty-six percent said the current minimum wage was too low for working New Jerseyans to support a family; in South Jersey, that percentage swelled to 77. Only 24 percent statewide said they were most concerned that increasing the wage would hurt businesses and slow job growth; in South Jersey, 22 percent expressed concern about businesses.
People were divided over how the wage should be increased and indexed to inflation, with 43 percent supporting legislation and 48 percent supporting a constitutional amendment. That could be due, in part, to confusion over the differences in the mechanism, said Jeffrey Plaut, founding partner at Global Strategy Group, which coauthored the survey.
"It's the kind of issue people understand and they strongly support it, and that holds up across parties," he said. But when it comes to the procedure of how to increase the wage, people aren't sure, he said.
Mary Littlewood, 58, a Democrat from Burlington County, said she doesn't have a strong opinion about how state lawmakers should increase the wage rate. But she wants to see it go up.
"I can't imagine making minimum wage," said Littlewood, a postal clerk. "It's hard enough live on what they're paying them."
Marlene Takakjy, a nurse and a Republican from Gloucester County, said she understood business owners' worry over increasing labor costs. But the current rate is just too low, she said.
"Nowadays, the price of everything's going up," she said. "It's hard for anybody to get by on $7.25" an hour.
Carla Entrekin, 48, a Gloucester County Democrat, said businesses would weather the wage increase as they have in the past: New Jersey raised the minimum wage in 2005, and the federal government last raised it in 2009.
"People are still going to shop; I don't think this is going to really hurt the businesses," she said.
Entrekin said Sweeney's plan might be the only way to get the raise through.
"I don't think Christie will sign it," she said of the bill.
About the Poll
The Inquirer New Jersey Poll results are based on telephone interviews conducted Oct. 4 through 8 with 604 likely voters.
Polls were conducted by a bipartisan team of national political pollsters - Jeffrey Plaut, founding partner of the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group, and Adam Geller, chief executive of the Republican firm National Research.
The estimated margin of error for statewide results is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Results for the seven-county South Jersey area - Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties - have a margin of error of plus or minus 8.5 percentage points. The New Jersey Poll is sponsored by PSEG.
Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter at @joellefarrell.