The $15 Minimum Wage: Another Legislative Firefight to Come?

"You know the governor's not going to sign it," Sweeney said of Prieto's bill.

Sweeney, Prieto and Governor Christie
Sweeney, Prieto and Governor Christie

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) announced that he will introduce a bill mirroring another from U.S. Representative Donald Norcross (D-NJ) Tuesday, saying that he will propose a constitutional amendment to introduce incremental increases in the minimum wage up to $15 by 2024. As Sweeney’s bill goes up against Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto’s recent bill to do the same in one fell swoop and through conventional legislative channels, the Senate president may have handed himself a boost for the Democratic gubernatorial primary next year at Prieto’s expense.

Approval for an amendment would most likely go to voters in 2017, the same year that Sweeney will be competing against fellow Democrats for the nomination to replace Governor Chris Christie. The gradual increases would be accompanied by tax incentives for employers, a key difference. That could help Sweeney court some of the support he lost when he agreed to cut a deal with Christie on public pension reforms in 2011, all while appeasing the private sector.

The new proposed ballot amendment joins another from Sweeney, which would mandate quarterly pension payments. Both would bypass the governor and, Sweeney claimed, stand a better chance by steering around a veto as a previous increase to the minimum wage did in 2013.

“You know the governor’s not going to sign it,” Sweeney said of Prieto’s bill.

Prieto and Sweeney have been locked in a protracted North-South rivalry as Sweeney’s bill to expand casino gaming to North Jersey won out last year and secured guaranteed spots for existing Atlantic City operators in the bidding for new locations. Sweeney could be trying to take back Prieto’s thunder for himself by introducing his own bill so soon after the speaker’s announcement. Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) will be sponsoring a version of Sweeney’s bill over Prieto’s when it goes to the Assembly floor.

“The American dream is prefaced on the notion that a full-time job allows a worker to live a healthy, fulfilling life, and to better their child’s future,” Greenwald said in a statement. “But the minimum wage has never had as little buying power as it does now. Raising the wage brings the economic scales closer to balance and gives the economy a boost. I encourage my colleagues in the Assembly and Senate to join us in this effort.”

While Assembly sources called Tuesday’s announcement a last-minute attempt to claim the credit ahead of the gubernatorial, those close to the Senate pointed to Norcross and Sweeney’s record of arguing for an increase. Sources close to Sweeney said that he still favors increases that correlate with the Consumer Price Index, and that there will be language in the amendment for CPI adjustments to become the standard for further increases once wages hit the $15-an-hour mark.

“Indexing the minimum wage to inflation and taking it out of the hands of legislators and governors is something I had hoped to do in 2005, only to see it stripped from the final law,” Sweeney said in 2012. The new amendment would likely outpace increases accounting for inflation.

Sweeney’s surprise move drew harsh criticism from both sides of the partisan divide. While he praised the signs of a “legislative consensus” on higher wages, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) said that Sweeney’s reliance on ballot questions is starting to wear thin. An outspoken advocate of a $15 mimimum wage, Wisniewski is considering a gubernatorial run himself.

“We could do legislation to accomplish the same goal,” said Wisniewski. “You water down the significance of the constitution by using it as a legislative alternative.” “I don’t think it has anything to do with anything other than a consensus being developed in New Jersey’s legislative community.”

Christie’s office, meanwhile, made the veto Sweeney pointed to sound like a foregone conclusion.

“There is absolutely no end to what Democrats in the legislature will do to kill jobs, drive major businesses out of New Jersey and destroy an economy that is on the rebound,” said Christie spokesman Brian Murray. The $15 Minimum Wage: Another Legislative Firefight to Come?