As $15 Minimum Wage Bill Advances, Sweeney Says 2013 Increase Did Too Little

Senator Joseph Vitale, cosponsor of Senate President Steve Sweeney's bill to increase the minimum wage. The bill advanced in committee Monday.

Senator Joseph Vitale, cosponsor of Senate President Steve Sweeney’s bill to increase the minimum wage. The bill advanced in committee Monday.

TRENTON — As his bill to increase New Jersey’s minimum wage advanced in committee Monday, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) said that the increase he sponsored in 2013 did not go far enough and predicted an uphill battle in getting his new bill to raise the wage to $15 an hour as soon as 2021 past the governor.

“We recognize now that we needed to go much further,” Sweeney said of 2013’s minimum wage hike, which passed by a ballot initiative that lead to a constitutional mandate. “I’m got an army behind me and I expect to pass it.

“Working people need and deserve to be paid a living wage for their labor,” he said. “It is disgraceful that low-wage employees can work full-time jobs and still be living in poverty. The wealth gap that has widened is un-American and needs to be closed.”

If passed, Sweeney’s bill would raise the wage from $8.38 an hour to $10.10 on January 1, 2017. If Governor Chris Christie vetoes the bill as expected, Sweeney will pursue another ballot question and another constitutional amendment to effect annual increases to the minimum wage until it reaches that $15 benchmark. At that point, future increases would be tied to the rate of growth in the Consumer Price Index.

Pointing to the bill’s potential to improve quality of life for New Jersey’s low-wage workers, Sweeney and advocates from left-leaning research organization New Jersey Policy Perspective argued that the wealthy need to acknowledge the role of consumer spending in shoring up the state’s economy.

“Contrary to stereotypes, 91% of the affected workers are adults – only 9% are teenagers,” NJPP analyst Brandon McKoy testified during Monday’s Senate Labor Committee hearing. “Most are working full time and many are parents. More than 1 in 5 New Jersey children have at least one parent who would benefit from raising the wage.”

The New Jersey Education Association weighed in during Sweeney’s subsequent press conference, taking a shot at Republican opponents’ support for a phase-out of New Jersey’s estate tax.

“I know that we’ll hear from the representatives of New Jersey’s wealthiest residents with all kinds of reasons why this is bad for the economy,” said Wendell Steinhauer of the NJEA at Sweeney’s press conference. “The same people fighting for tax breaks to protect their multi-million dollar estates will argue that $15 an hour is too much to pay working class people who provide important services.”

Senator Joseph Vitale (D-19), the bill’s cosponsor, called for lawmakers to rally behind the effort to keep those working full-time from sinking further into poverty.

“It’s shameful that one of the wealthiest states in the nation still relegates a portion of its workforce to below the poverty line,” Vitale said.

Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, warned that a wage hike could reverse improvements in the state unemployment rate since the recession of 2008. Siekerka called for the state to examine workforce development and “affordability factors” in housing, healthcare and child care in lieu of ushering in a $15 minimum wage.

“The irony is that New Jersey has finally turned the economic corner after the Great Recession and business owners are now starting to make the investments in their companies that are needed to grow the business and create new jobs,” Siekerka said.  “A $15 minimum wage would absolutely pull the rug out from under our state’s economic recovery.”