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Parties Differ On Amount, Timing of Boost in NJ Minimum Wage

Senate Democrats vote $1.25 per-hour hike; GOP, Christie want slower, smaller increase.

Democrats and Republicans have drawn lines in the sand over linking future minimum-wage increases to the cost of living, with Democrats pushing for automatic adjustments and Republicans – including the governor – calling it unacceptable.

Both parties agree that the state’s minimum wage of $7.25, which has not increased since 2005, should be increased, but they disagree over the size of the increase and its timing.

Senate Democrats pushed through a $1.25 an hour hike and annual cost-of-living adjustment on Thursday. The increase would take effect all at once on March 1.

Republicans called for a phased-in increase, possibly over three years, with no automatic increases.

The legislation,S3, would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 an hour beginning on March 1, with an automatic cost-of-living adjustment tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) occurring every Jan. 1.

The Senate also approved a resolution to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would increase the wage to $8.25 and also include an annual cost-of-living increase. Both were approved by 23-16 party-line votes.

The Assembly is scheduled to vote on the bill on Monday. It had passed the increase by a 46-33 vote in May, but it needs to amend the legislation to change the date the increase would go into effect. The Assembly will vote on the constitutional amendment later this month.

The constitutional amendment did not gain a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate and will need to be approved again in 2013. If it wins approval, it will go on the November ballot.

If New Jersey increases its minimum wage to $8.50, it would one of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, that exceed the federal minimum of $7.25. Washington state’s $9.04, Oregon’s $8.80 and Vermont’s $8.46 are the highest minimum wage rates in the nation.

The Garden State currently is one of 22 states – including New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware – with the same wage as the federal rate. Four states and Puerto Rico have no state minimum and five states have rates lower than the federal minimum. In all 10 cases, the federal rate applies.

In response to Thursday’s vote, Gov. Chris Christie’s press office reissued a statement released Wednesday afternoon in which the governor took Democrats to task for being unwilling to compromise.

“I have continued to say on the minimum wage that I am willing to consider a responsible minimum wage package but let’s be clear on this now, we’ve got thousands of businesses wiped out and is this really now the moment to say to those folks that we’re going to hit you with a $1.25 increase on March 1 and a CPI beyond that?” the governor said. “I have absolutely great concern for the working poor in this state and I want to make sure that they are taken care of and I think there are lots of ways we can do that.”

The governor has said he supports gradually increasing the minimum wage over a three-year period. He opposes the automatic annual increases.

“It seems to me that their posture is that they have no willingness to negotiate and that would be sad that I’m offering bipartisan compromise and they’re saying no,” he said. “But I don’t know what else to conclude when I continue to say publicly and privately to them ‘come to me with a proposal and let’s talk about what we can do’ and what I would be willing to sign and I haven’t gotten any contact from them at all.”

Christie spokesman Sean Conner said the governor had “45 days to review and act on the bill” and that he had nothing to add to his Wednesday remarks.

The Senate would need 27 votes and the Assembly 54 votes –- an additional four votes in the Senate and eight in the Assembly, if the legislation passes by the same margin as in May -- to override the veto, a scenario that Democratic leaders said was unlikely. That's why Senate President Stephen Sweeney is pushing forward with constitutional amendment.

Hank Kalet is a veteran journalist and editor, who has covered economic issues, government, and entertainment in central New Jersey for more than two decades.

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