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Ready to Wage War Over Raising New Jersey’s Minimum Wage

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From left, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Working Families United New Jersey Chair Charles N. Hall Jr. state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) take part in a recent kickoff event held in Newark in support of raising the state's minimum wage.

The first salvos have been fired in the battle over November’s public vote on whether to approve a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage. The campaign is expected to be intense but whether national groups on either side of the question will enter it in a big way is still unknown.

That’s because there is a lack of precedent, both at the state and the national level, for the kind of public question being put before New Jersey voters and because the campaign-finance landscape has changed drastically since six states held special votes on their minimum wages in 2006.

What is clear, however, is that both sides of the issue plan to take a vigorous approach to getting their message out.

A $1 minimum wage increase, from $7.25 per hour to $8.25 per hour, will be on the ballot in November, along with the governor and all 120 members of the state Legislature. The question asks voters to approve the increase as part of a constitutional amendment that also would index the wage to inflation, which could lead to annual increases.

Activists backing the wage hike, say voters can expect an “aggressive ground war,” with a lot of face-to-face campaigning. New Jersey business groups opposed to the higher wage are still formulating plans, though they have been aided in their efforts by two national business groups, one of which has started airing TV and radio ads around the state.

Supporters, including liberal activist groups, labor unions, religious groups, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono and much of the state Democratic leadership, say the minimum wage is too low to make ends meet in New Jersey and that it will generate economic activity.

Opponents, including the state’s larger business and industry groups, Gov. Chris Christie and much of the Republican leadership, say it could cost jobs and that the indexing provision could create uncertainty for business owners. They also oppose the use of the constitutional amendment process to address what they say is an economic issue.

The decision to try to increase the wage via a constitutional vote followed a failed attempt by Democratic legislators to pass an $8.50-cent minimum wage with indexing earlier this year. The increase had passed both houses of the Legislature, but was conditionally vetoed by the governor. In his conditional veto, the governor offered a $1 increase phased in over three years, without indexing.

Observers say the campaign is likely to be intense, with supporters looking to build upon polling that has consistently shown the wage increase to be popular. Critics are likely to try to undercut this support. It is unclear, they say, whether national groups may try to influence the vote.

“This particular amendment being put on the ballot is something that we haven’t really done,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It involves economic policy and not borrowing. A typical ballot issue involves how much the state can borrow for open space, roads or higher education. So the politics of dealing with it are pretty unique for this state. There have been other ballot initiatives around the country where you see outside money, but I am not sure what will happen here because we have never had this kind question on the ballot.”

Paul Sonn, legal co-director of the pro-labor National Employment Law Project in Washington, said the experiences of other states that have put wage questions on the ballot do not offer much of a window into what will happen here. There have been nine minimum wage referenda since 1998, all of which passed. Six of those occurred in 2006. While national money did not play a role in those votes, it is impossible to know whether the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which prohibits states and the federal government from limiting independent spending by political committees, corporations, and unions, would encourage outside groups to weigh in.

So far, the only national group to enter the fray is the Employment Policies Institute, which kicked off a $500,000 advertising campaign on July 9. The campaign is featuring radio and cable TV spots that focus on what it says are the negative impacts of increasing the minimum wage.

Mike Saltsman, EPI’s research director, said the ads are part of an “educational campaign” designed to show the “consequences to the entry-level job market.”

“Our interest is in showing that raising the minimum wage doesn’t accomplish what people think it will,” he said.

Saltsman said there is not a strong correlation between increasing the minimum wage and reducing poverty, and that it was important to inject a critical view into the discourse on the issue.

“Our radio pieces are not about voting ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but about the consequences of the higher minimum,” he said. “It is about raising the cost of hiring and training entry-level employees.”

EPI’s ads will run for about two months, he said. The organization then would “assess how things stand at the end of August.”

State groups say they are not expecting their national counterparts to join the campaign. Michael Egenton, senior vice president for government relations at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said that the national chamber – which spent $35 million on national races in 2012, according to opensecrets.org – generally “does not get involved in statewide or local issues.”

“They have enough on their plate nationally with health care and immigration reform,” he said. “I think they are aware of it, but we will not be involving them or asking them for resources.”

Egenton said state business groups would be meeting to discuss strategy later in the summer, but he expected that their goal would be to make sure that voters understand that a minimum-wage hike could serious consequences.

“We have to educate and inform the voters about the consequences and ramifications of voting for the measure,” he said.

Businesses, he said, will have to cut back hours and benefits or lay off workers and curtail hiring.

“They have to reach their bottom line and do whatever they have to do to do that,” he said. “There are ramifications that come with (the increase). That will be an important part of our message.

How to get that message out is an issue that still needs to be discussed, he said.

“We have to see what the options are,” he said. “There is no disputing that marketing and media buy may be part of it. But we have got the New York-Northern New Jersey and Philadelphia-South Jersey markets. They are expensive. The stakeholders will have to sit down and discuss our collective thinking and determine what resources we have going forward. We know it is costly and want to do it right and hit the right message.”

Whether or not TV advertising is part of the mix, he said, business groups are likely to take advantage of social media and digital platforms.

“The younger generations are very apt to rely on that rather than turn on CBS or NBC or Fox,” he said. “Generally, they go to Twitter or Facebook, so there has to be a social media component to get a message out, as well. I see that being part of the mix, but the details still have to be worked out.”

Supporters of the wage say they will consider television and radio, but the cost could be prohibitive, so they expect to focus their resources on grassroots organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“It is too early to know” whether advertising will be a part of the effort, said Rob Duffey, of the Working Families Alliance. “We’ve not made a decision on what kinds of resources we might put into television and radio. Right now, we are thinking of it through advocacy.”

“There are going to be events around the state, and we will be engaging folks through digital and social media to raise awareness of the benefits of raising the wage,” he said. The current wage of $7.25 “is too little to live on, especially in New Jersey, so we are doing what we can to get out the right information.”

Paul Penna, campaign manager for Raise the Wage NJ, a coalition of unions, faith groups and others, said their focus would be on the ground game.

“Our goal between now and November is to run an aggressive grassroots education campaign to a) inform voters of the ballot question and b) make sure that they vote and vote for the ballot question.”

Raise the Wage has held several press conferences and other events since launching in June and Penna said he expects that to continue. The group also plans to knock on doors and work through its 234 coalition partners to make sure everyone understands the benefits of an increased wage.

Dworkin said he expects the grassroots efforts to remain the primary approach on both sides, though radio may be an efficient way of getting the word out.

“New Jersey’s political geography means that to run a statewide political television campaign is very expensive,” he said. “One needs to buy network media out of New York and Philadelphia, which are the first and fourth most expensive media markets in the country.”

Cable, he said “doesn’t have the same reach.” It can be targeted, but “to move the numbers on a statewide thing, you have to go on network TV.”

In the end, the campaign is likely to resemble a more old-fashioned political operation: Door-to-door campaigning, direct mail and phone banking.

“Nobody has $20 million to support this thing,” he said. “Given the limited resources, the best course of action is to be targeted. The number one reason people vote is because someone asked them to. Just seeing an ad on Facebook doesn’t do it, but if your friends ask you to support it or oppose it, that is much more effective.”

Dworkin said there could be one wild card: Gov. Christie. The governor so far has not focused any political capital on the minimum wage referendum, though Buono has made the wage vote an issue.

“How active is the governor going to be in fighting the amendment?” he asked. “The governor is well ahead in the polls. Is he going to put his own personal reputation and popularity on the side of those who are opposing this? Is he going to be actively campaigning against it?

“It’ll be interesting to see if he jumps in, to see if the governor starts going out to public events and campaigning actively and strongly and consistently.”

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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