Sweeney stays determined to raise the minimum wage via constitutional amendment

Posted: October 17, 2012

TRENTON - State Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) was unwavering Monday in his resolve to seek a constitutional amendment that would increase New Jersey's minimum hourly wage to $8.25 and provide regular increases based on inflation.

In 2005, before he became president of the Democratic-controlled Senate, he acceded to his party's request to strip annual adjustments tied to the consumer price index from his bill to raise the minimum wage to $7.15, Sweeney said Monday.

Had he not given in, said Sweeney - whose district has the state's lowest per-capita income - that wage now would be $9.20 instead of the current $7.25, the lowest hourly rate permitted by the federal government.

"This is one of the things that I am not bending on," Sweeney said at a Budget Committee hearing. "I had to, back in 2005, accept some things that, as the Senate president, I don't have to."

His measure to put a ballot question before voters was moved from committee by a 7-6 vote, with five Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Jeff Van Drew of Cape May, voting against. It must sit on lawmakers' desks for 20 days before a hearing can be scheduled and the full Senate can vote on it.

Sweeney almost certainly has the votes in his chamber, but he must win over the Democratic-led Assembly. Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), who has not scheduled a hearing on his bill, is pushing the Senate to pass her measure, which would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour as soon as possible.

Oliver also seeks automatic increases but has said she is willing to forgo that provision in her bill, which the Assembly passed in May. She is not after a constitutional amendment.

Sweeney hopes to get his question on the ballot next fall, when Republican Gov. Christie - who opposes a minimum-wage bill that includes automatic increases - is up for re-election. The issue would likely draw to the polls Democratic-inclined members of labor unions, whose leaders testified in favor of the measure Monday.

Both chambers must pass the bill by a majority this year and next year to meet that deadline. If approved by voters, Sweeney's increase would go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Republican lawmakers and business lobbyists on Monday argued that a mandatory rise could force some employers to cut jobs.

"Increasing the minimum wage means nothing to the person who gets laid off," said Sen. Anthony Bucco (R., Morris).

Sweeney has defended a constitutional amendment as a vehicle for the change.

"We have amended the constitution to legalize bingo games and casino gambling," he said during his testimony. "Surely that means there's room to ensure those on the lower end of the wage scale can secure some kind of consistent wage increase."

Christie has called that logic "ridiculous."

"What Sen. Sweeney maybe doesn't understand is that we had to amend the constitution to allow gambling, not that we chose to," Christie said at an Oct. 2 news conference in Flemington. "You don't have to amend the constitution to raise the minimum wage. You can do it by statute."

Added Christie, "Steve and Sheila should get together and come to an agreement between the two of them as to what they want. . . . I have said over and over again that I will consider a minimum-wage increase as a part of a larger package to help to bring economic growth to the state. And if they want to come and talk to me about that, I couldn't be more welcoming."

Some Republicans on the Senate committee said Monday that they were open to a raise in the wage without future increases being built in. Sweeney wouldn't hear of it.

"The [consumer price index] is an absolute, and that cannot come off the table," he said. "This body needs to fix this permanently. I'm not going to miss this opportunity again."

Thirty-two states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, pay minimum-wage workers $7.25 an hour, the amount required by federal law since 2009. Of the states that pay more, 10 have indexed their wages to inflation, four via a constitutional amendment.

Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth) argued that lawmakers should use bills to raise the wage. Altering the constitution makes it too hard to delay increases if the state falls on hard times, she said.

Typical changes in the index would result in small annual increases to the hourly wage, Sweeney said. In 2008 and 2009, when the economy flopped, the index did not increase. In such a case, the minimum wage would remain level, Sweeney said.

Regular small wage increases would prevent the "sticker shock" of large increases all at once, he said.

In an Inquirer New Jersey poll of 604 likely New Jersey voters this month, there was strong support for raising the minimum wage and locking in cost-of-living increases.

Of those who responded, 76 percent supported increasing the hourly wage to $8.25 from $7.25 and tying the new wage to the consumer price index. South Jersey voters supported boosting the wage by 77 percent to 17 percent.

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.

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

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