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NJ voters may be asked to decide minimum wage hike

ANGELA DELLI SANTI, Associated Press
Tuesday, 16 Oct 2012 | 10:19 AM ET

TRENTON, N.J. -- A New Jersey Senate panel narrowly passed a resolution Monday that would ask voters to approve a minimum wage increase next year along with automatic yearly adjustments.

The vote was 7-6. The proposal did not receive any Republican support, perhaps because Gov. Chris Christie opposes the idea of changing the constitution over the minimum wage. He called the idea "truly ridiculous."

Senate President Steve Sweeney, the resolution's sponsor, said he decided to try the constitutional approach after Christie told him he would not sign a bill that includes indexed wage adjustments tied to national economic data. The Legislature, not the governor, approve questions for ballot consideration.

New Jersey's minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal rate and many other states, was last raised in 2010. Sweeney fought to tie future wage increases to the Consumer Price Index when the wage was raised in 2005 but lost. The Gloucester County Democrat now says it was a mistake to back down on that portion of the bill.

"Minimum wage increases shouldn't be left to the whims of politics," he said.

If the wage had been indexed annually since the state began statutorily setting the rate in 1968, New Jersey's minimum wage today would be $9.20, according to a calculation provided by Senate Democrats.

Of the states that index their minimum wage, all have wage floors equal to or greater than New Jersey's. The highest is Washington state, where the minimum wage is $8.67 per hour.

A minimum-wage earner in New Jersey who works 40 hours grosses $290 a week.

If both houses of the Legislature approve, voters would be asked in November 2013 to raise the wage by $1, to $8.25 per hour, and tie yearly increases to the CPI. The wage increase would become effective in January 2014.

The Assembly passed a bill in May raising the wage to $8.50 and creating annual adjustments. But Sweeney did not advance the bill in the Senate after discussing it with Christie. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said she still wants the bill sent to the governor for action.

"A strong majority of New Jerseyans support a living wage for working-class families because they know a higher minimum wage can significantly improve the lives of workers and their families without the adverse effects that critics have claimed," Oliver said in a statement. "A robust minimum wage is a key building block of sustainable economic recovery. It's long past time to provide this basic fairness, so it's time to move the bill."

Sen. Joe Pennacchio agreed. The Morris County Republican tried but failed on Monday to get the Senate to schedule a hearing on the speaker's bill.

Afterward, he said the party-line vote symbolized what's wrong with Trenton.

"Republicans have been completely cut out of the discussion on a matter of huge economic importance to workers and the business community that puts food on the table for millions of New Jersey families," he said. "Senate Democrats are refusing to compromise with their Assembly colleagues."

Stefanie Riehl, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said changing the constitution takes power from the Legislature and makes it impossible for lawmakers to reverse course if the economy worsens. Perhaps that's why less than a handful of states address the minimum wage in their state constitutions, she said.

Alberto Ramirez, a Spanish-speaking minimum-wage earner who supports two children, testified through an interpreter that he makes so little money he could not afford to come to the chamber in a coat and tie, like the legislators were wearing.

"I would have to not eat for a week to dress like that," he said. "I ask you to please support and pass this law."