Christie Challenged by N.J. Democrats’ Higher-Wage Pitch

New Jersey Democrats, less than a week after Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed their bill to make same-sex marriage legal, are pushing another priority, a higher minimum wage.

New Jersey would join at least eight U.S. states raising the minimum hourly wage for most workers this year. A bill lawmakers advanced out of the Assembly Labor Committee today would boost the rate to $8.50 an hour from $7.25 in July, and starting next year would tie future increases to U.S. Consumer Price Index changes.

Democrats, who control both legislative chambers, put a priority this year on the wage issue, same-sex marriage and a tax increase for millionaires. Christie, 49 and in his first term, rejected the marriage bill Feb. 17 and yesterday stood fast in opposing higher taxes on the wealthy. The governor said last month he would consider a higher minimum pay rate, while saying job growth was more important, even $7.25-an-hour jobs.

“I am not yet focused on the minimum-wage situation and what we may or may not do,” Christie told reporters yesterday in Palisades Park. “One thing I can guarantee you of is that nothing will be done unless I’m a player at the table to discuss it.”

“So far, the Democrats have just decided to operate on their own,” the governor said. “We’ve seen this before -- when they operate on their own, things get vetoed.”

Agenda Key

A higher minimum wage “should be a key part of the economic recovery agenda,” said Tom Hester, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from East Orange who sponsored the bill to raise the rate. The measure passed by a vote of 6-2-1, with two Republicans voting against it and one abstaining, and is headed to the full Assembly.

“This is economic stimulus and a recognition that thousands of households in New Jersey are struggling to subsist on minimum-wage jobs that do not allow them to support their families,” Oliver told the committee today.

Christie on Feb. 21 introduced a $32.1 billion budget for fiscal 2013, which begins in July, that seeks personal and business income-tax cuts and the largest public-pension contribution in state history. It relies on a 7.3 percent rise in revenue, which would be the biggest gain since 2007.

Ahead of Neighbors

New Jersey residents had the third-highest income per capita among states in 2010, at $51,167, trailing only Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The Garden State’s minimum wage last increased in 2009, when it climbed 1.4 percent from $7.15.

A rate of $8.50 would put New Jersey ahead of neighboring New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, which all require the $7.25 federal minimum, and would edge out Connecticut, where the state-set rate is now $8.25, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s website. The Assembly’s Labor Committee will hear testimony today on the bill in the state Capitol in Trenton.

The New Jersey Minimum Wage Advisory Commission, a five-member appointed panel that reports annually, in January recommended in a 3-2 vote to keep the pay rate unchanged this year. The panel cited an economy still recovering from the longest recession since World War II, and a jobless rate which has been 9 percent or higher since May 2009.

An increase “may put the state at a competitive disadvantage,” leading some employers to add fewer jobs or consider moving to lower-cost states, the panel said in a report. It also cited the probable effect of pushing up consumer prices.

Hourly Workers

For the 12 months ended September 2011, an average 39,700 people in New Jersey were paid the minimum rate, according to the panel, or about 2.3 percent of all hourly wage workers.

The current minimum wage isn’t a livable standard in a high-cost state such as New Jersey, Lakisha Williams, a 29-year-old single mother from Newark, told lawmakers today.

Williams, a high-school graduate, said she earns $290 a week working full time as a wheelchair assistant at Newark Liberty International Airport. She said she receives Medicaid health coverage, rent assistance and food stamps.

“I’m the parent of a 12-year-old daughter, and she is very expensive,” Williams said. “She’s getting older now and it’s to the point where I have to sit her down and sometimes I have to cry and tell her that mommy’s doing the best she can.”

Basic Standard

The state should follow New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s lead, according to Jon Whiten, a spokesman for New Jersey Public Policy Perspective, a nonprofit organization in Trenton that focuses on “progressive policies,” according to its website. Bloomberg advocates a higher minimum.

“It’s actually good for the broader economic climate to ensure a basic standard of living for those who are working hard,” Whiten said yesterday by e-mail. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, introduced a bill last month that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour and index future increases to inflation. Governor Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, has said he supports the concept while he hasn’t decided whether to back Silver’s bill.

Opponents such as the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, a 21,500-member lobbying group in Trenton, say it’s the wrong time for a mandated increase. For a fourth straight year, more employers reported declining sales, earnings, spending and hiring compared with those reporting gains, the organization said in a survey released in September.

Bad Timing

“We’re still struggling to get out of a recession and improve the business climate in the state,” Stefanie Riehl, an assistant vice president of employment and labor policy for the group, said by telephone.

Joe Olivo, president of Perfect Printing in Moorestown, said opponents of the increase have been demonized. He said his family has owned the company for 33 years, and that during the height of the economic slowdown in 2008 and 2009, he was forced to fire nine workers. Four of the firm’s 48 workers would get raises after a minimum-wage increase, he said.

“Everybody has their own financial difficulties at my company,” Olivo, 46, told reporters after testifying before lawmakers. “No one wants to come out against somebody and say they don’t feel they should be paid more. I don’t feel like that. I just worry this will hurt the workers they’re trying to protect and our businesses.”

Christie has voiced concern that an increase may lead employers to cut workers’ hours and put off hiring. He has said he recognizes a higher rate may be a good thing and he wants to be involved in the discussions about the policy.

“I’d love to sit down and talk to them,” said Christie, referring to Democratic leaders. “My mind is not set on this issue, but I’m not going to be persuaded in silence.”


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