Legislators Weigh in on Competing $15 Minimum Wage Bills

Sweeney, Prieto and Governor Christie

Sweeney, Prieto and Governor Christie

New Jersey’s Democratic legislators want to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, they just don’t agree on how that bump in wages should be approached. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) wants wages immediately boosted from where they sit at $8.38 per hour and has introduced a bill that would go through the regular legislative process to do so. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) has said that he will propose a constitutional amendment that would increase wages incrementally to $15 by 2024. Sweeney’s approach would put the question on the 2017 ballot, bypass Republican Governor Chris Christie and, potentially, avoid his veto pen.

The setup for the $15 minimum wage debate is similar to a disagreement the two legislators recently had about opening casinos in North Jersey. While they were eventually able to come to an agreement (which favored Sweeney), the debate was the source of serious contention.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7) believes that the competing minimum wage bills will not face the same fate. He said that be believes the two will eventually be able to reach a consensus.

“I think the Speaker and Senate President both share the same regard that this is an important issue,” Singleton said. “I just think they believe in tackling it two different ways. I don’t think it is as big a disagreement as some are trying to put forth because they both agree on the seminal point, which is that the minimum wage in New Jersey is too low, especially for anyone who is trying to make a living wage and, especially, if they are trying to raise a family.”

According to state Senator Joe Vitale (D-19), the “end goal is the same” for both Sweeney and Prieto. Vitale said that, though they both want to boost the minimum wage, a constitutional amendment might be a better path in light of Governor Christie’s likely veto.

“It is not likely that the governor would sign a minimum wage increase, no matter the number,” Vitale said. “A constitutional amendment would provide more certainty.”

Vitale also said that Prieto’s “lump sum” increase might be somewhat harmful to small businesses but an incremental approach has the added benefit of predictability. He said that allowing time to plan for increases over several years would be less of a shock to small business owners.

Sweeney is a probable 2017 gubernatorial candidate. With Prieto’s support likely veering toward one of Sweeney’s main opponents for the position, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, some insiders are calling debates on the nuances of topics like minimum wage and casinos posturing ahead of the 2017 race.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3) , Sweeney’s fellow district 3 legislator, said that the fact that both approaches were put up around the same time is not unusual and should not be taken to assume irreconcilable differences between the two Democratic leaders.

“I think if you look back at how the legislative process works, it is not unusual for the same topic to be approached in different ways between the houses,” Burzichelli said. “It has to be negotiated. I know there will be some compromise to get the higher minimum wage in place.”

According to Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-14), it is “too early to tell” what will happen with the two opposing bills. The Democratic caucus has yet to be briefed on either version. He did say, however, that the issue was a critical one for the future of New Jersey.

“I am a firm believer that we are one of the most expensive states so we should have a higher minimum wage than those that are not,” DeAngelo said.

Like Sweeney, DeAngelo and Singleton have strong ties to New Jersey labor groups. Sweeney is an ironworker by trade. DeAngelo works with IBEW and Singleton works with the Carpenters. When asked how Sweeney could justify making labor workers wait longer than the timeline proposed by Prieto to see a bump in wages, both assemblymen declined to comment about the Senate President’s possible motivations for his backing of the incremental plan. They both said they would wait until legislative hearings and briefings were held to fairly consider both approaches to the wage boost.

“It is really not for me to be the judge,” DeAngelo said. “We haven’t had our hearing yet. We will hear pros and cons to both.”

In the casino deal, Sweeney leaned heavily on labor groups to push his legislation over Prieto’s.

Legislators Weigh in on Competing $15 Minimum Wage Bills