N.J. Senate approves minimum-wage increase

Posted: November 30, 2012

The Democratic-led New Jersey Senate unleashed a double-barreled political shot at Gov. Christie on Thursday, approving both a bill and a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage and provide automatic cost-of-living increases in it.

Should Christie veto the bill or strip it of the automatic increases, legislative leaders plan to put the proposed amendment to voters in November 2013, when Christie would be up for reelection.

The Republican governor said Wednesday that he was "willing to consider a responsible minimum-wage package." But with many businesses struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, Christie said, he has concerns about the bill, which would increase the hourly rate to $8.50 from $7.25 by March 1.

"We've got thousands of businesses wiped out," he said at a news conference Wednesday in Trenton. "Is this really now the moment to say to those folks, 'We're going to hit you with a $1.25 increase on March 1 and [cost-of-living increases] beyond that?' "

Should Democrats move forward with the amendment, the brainchild of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) - who may himself run for governor - it's likely that union forces still smarting from Christie's overhaul of state pension and benefits last year would come to the polls en masse. That could help whichever Democrat is running against him.

"The ballot issue is not really about the minimum wage, it's about driving participation at the polls," said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

Christie also may consider popular opinion. More than three-fourths of New Jerseyans support raising the minimum wage and increasing it with inflation, according to an Inquirer poll conducted last month.

Increasing the "minimum wage is broadly popular; the question is, will people vote on it?" said Jeffrey Plaut, founding partner at Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling group that, along with a GOP pollster, conducted the surveys for The Inquirer. "The concern for the governor in opposing a minimum-wage increase is that he could look hard-hearted."

Christie has not looked hard-hearted recently, having spent the last several weeks wrapping his arms around devastated Shore residents who lost their homes to Sandy. His approval ratings reached an eye-popping 72 percent, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released this week, with both Democrats and nonaffiliated voters joining Republicans in heaping praise on him for his handling of the storm recovery.

But Christie knows those numbers will drop. He's running for reelection in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000 and where President Obama won the state by a 17-point margin this month.

The Senate gave final approval to the minimum-wage bill Thursday, voting along party lines, 23-16. The Assembly passed the bill in May.

The proposed amendment also passed Thursday by 23-16, but the Assembly has yet to take action on it. The amendment differs slightly from the bill, as it would increase the wage to $8.25 by Jan. 1, 2014, and provide for regular increases afterward.

During the two-hour Senate debate Thursday, Republicans chastised Democrats as rebuffing their efforts to find a middle ground. Christie also has said Democrats did not negotiate with him about the minimum wage.

Some GOP members said they would agree to increase the wage, but not the automatic increases.

But Sweeney has refused to strike the clause that would index the minimum wage to the consumer price index. He said he wanted to fix the problem permanently.

Others, such as Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth), said they could no longer support the bill because of the damage Sandy inflicted on businesses.

"I fully intended to vote for the bill," Beck said. "But there is no way, at this moment in time, that we're doing the right thing by raising the costs on these people who've lost everything."

Democrats said Republicans always say it's the wrong time to raise the minimum wage. They made the same argument in 2005, when the state last raised the rate.

"Let's not hide behind the storm," Sweeney said. "This bill was opposed by many prior to that."

Sen. Richard Codey (D., Essex), another possible gubernatorial candidate, said the hurricane also hurt low-income workers.

"Can you live on $8.50 an hour?" he asked his colleagues. "How about these people during the storm, you think they could go to the few diners that were open? They can't do that."

He added, "This is sad that these people have to live on this kind of money. . . . Come on, help these people. Be compassionate."


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

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