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Connecticut moved closer Wednesday to increasing the state's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2017, the same rate President Barack Obama wants for the federal minimum wage.
The Democratic controlled Senate voted 21-14 in favor of the legislation, immediately sending it to the House of Representatives where it was expected to face a vote by the end of the day.
If the higher rate is enacted, as expected, the National Employment Law Project says Connecticut would be the first state to pass legislation raising the wage to $10.10 an hour. Similar proposals are also being considered by lawmakers in Maryland, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and other states.
Meanwhile, there are several states with higher rates than Connecticut's current $8.70 an hour wage. Those rates automatically increase based on the Consumer Price Index and could possibly surpass $10.10 by 2017, depending on economic conditions.
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"This bill is a modest step forward on behalf of those who have the least, working their hardest to provide for themselves and their family," said Senate President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn. "It's the least we can do to give them a hand-up."
Between 70,000 and 90,000 people earn the minimum wage in Connecticut, Williams said.
Republican senators, who were joined by Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, in opposing the bill, acknowledged some people would undoubtedly benefit but questioned whether the state's economy is strong enough to absorb the increase.
"To call it soft is a compliment," said Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington. "We're increasing the minimum wage at a time when the demand for employment is already low."
Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, was unsuccessful in attempting to amend the bill to ensure that minimum wage increases would not kick in until the state's average unemployment rate was less than or equal to the national unemployment rate. As of January, Connecticut's unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, compared to the national rate of 6.6 percent.
"If the economy was better, I would be voting yes," Fasano said.
Under current law, Connecticut's minimum wage is already scheduled to climb by 30 cents to $9 on Jan. 1, 2015. But under the bill, it would instead increase to $9.15 an hour. It would go up to $9.60 on Jan. 1, 2016 and to $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2017.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has yet to announce his re-election plans, has made a major political push to increase the state's wage. He appeared recently with Obama in New Britain with several other New England governors to advocate for a $10.10 an hour federal minimum wage. Malloy was also involved in a recent on-camera partisan feud outside the White House with Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal over Obama's proposal.
Malloy, however, was noncommittal in 2012 about a bill that would have raised Connecticut's wage to $9.75 by 2014. A spokesman for the governor said at the time that Malloy supported the "ideals behind the legislation" but understood the cost pressures facing businesses, particularly in weak economy.
Some businesses groups were disappointed with position change.
"Not long ago Connecticut small business owners were slightly encouraged by the reservations publicly expressed by state policymakers about how a large minimum wage increase would affect small businesses and the economy," said Andrew Markowski, Connecticut director of the National Federation of Independent Business. "Today they will pass, and some of the same people will celebrate, an even bigger increase before the last one was fully implemented."
According to a Quinnipiac University Poll released earlier this month, six in 10 registered voters support increasing the wage to $10.10 or more. The survey of 1,878 registered voters had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
—By The Associated Press