TRENTON – Senate lawmakers largely cleared the way for the state to raise its minimum wage Thursday and set the stage for Gov. Chris Christie to decide whether to sign the proposal into law or possibly be prepared to let voters to decide the issue during the next election.
Senate lawmakers voted 23-16 to release a bill that would increase the state’s minimum wage after a lengthy debate where Republican lawmakers argued that now is not the right time to have an increase. They cited the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and argued the state should spare businesses extra expenses.
The bill, S3, calls for increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 and would link future increases to the annual cost of living.
“There is no way in this moment in time that we’re doing the right thing by raising costs on these folks who lost everything,” said Sen. Jennifer Beck, (R-11), speaking of the Jersey shore businesses that are struggling to pick themselves up after being severely devastated by the storm.
“They have no revenue,” she said. “This is the wrong moment to be imposing greater costs.”
Democrats argued that opposition to the minimum wage the last time it was passed by the Legislature was that it would drive businesses away – but it didn’t, they said.
“I would challenge all of us to think, can you live on $8.50 an hour?” Sen. Richard Codey, (D-27), asked lawmakers on the floor.
“That’s not a livable wage,” he said. “Come on, let’s get real here.”
His comments were echoed by other Democratic lawmakers.
“This time will be the last time I will vote to raise the minimum wage because I won’t have to,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak, (D-20), speaking of the automatic increase language installed in the bill.
“As a country we fall behind, we fall behind because we forget about these folks,” he said. “I proudly support this legislation.”
The bill’s next step is to head back to the Assembly floor for a vote Monday so lawmakers can take a vote on the amended version before heading to the governor’s desk for consideration.
Christie has said publically that he would work with lawmakers on an increase proposal, but has also been critical of any plan that would give way to automatic increases.
Democratic lawmakers also voted 23-16 on a proposal that seeks to increase New Jersey’s minimum wage by amending the state’s Constitution. The proposal, SCR1, needs to pass both houses during a vote in 2012 and 2013 before it can be sent to voters by way of a ballot question during the 2013 election.
But before the question can be put to voters, Assembly lawmakers will first have to hold a public hearing on the proposed amendment and then post the proposal on the Assembly board list for a vote before the end of the year.
The minimum wage proposal cleared the Senate floor following lengthy debate from Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
The debate even turned somewhat somber, when Beck choked up briefly while speaking about the victims of Superstorm Sandy, saying, “2013 is going to be a year of survival.”
Lawmakers on the other side of the aisle again dismissed the Republican’s position that immediately following the storm is not the right time to pass the bill.
“I was not planning on speaking on this issue,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), who criticized Republicans for returning to partisan politics at a time when Democrats and Republicans worked in a bipartisan manner following the devastation of the storm.
“We are going to rebuild the Jersey shore,” he said. “To tie the two issues together is just wrong.”
Both minimum wage proposals in the upper chamber were sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, who has been a strong advocate of allowing voters to decide the issue in 2013.
“Let’s remind everybody, the people who are opposed to this bill were opposed to it before the storm,” said Sweeney, who told lawmakers not to forget that he “offered compromise” on the issue.
“Let’s get that straight,” he said.
Sweeney said he was not interested in “waging a war,” rather, he said he’s interested in helping the working class that lawmakers are “forcing to stay in poverty.”
Both proposals cleared the Senate floor largely along party lines.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, (D-1), was the only Democratic lawmaker to oppose both proposals.
Sen. Anthony Bucco, (R-25), was absent from the voting session.