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$15 An Hour In New Jersey Still Years Away Even With Legislative Approval

The minimum-wage increase that passed the Senate last week has a long phase-in even if Christie lets it become law

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Advocates for New Jersey’s lowest-income workers have been pushing hard this year to establish a $15 minimum wage, and they celebrated a big victory in the State House last week when the Senate voted in favor of establishing a phased-in $15 wage.

But even as that vote delivered final legislative approval for the increase -- a significant boost for those earning the state’s current hourly minimum of $8.38 -- the higher wage is still nowhere close to going into effect. Gov. Chris Christie opposes it, and the legislation includes a drawn-out phase-in schedule.

Christie has called the push for a $15 minimum wage by Democrats who control the Legislature a “reckless effort.” He is almost certain to veto the measure that was approved last week.

While the sponsors of the bill have pledged to push past that expected veto by taking the issue directly to voters, that path offers no guarantees, and a vote won’t likely occur until November 2017 at the earliest. Even if voters give the $15 minimum wage their approval in 2017, the current proposal calls for a series of incremental increases that would culminate in a $15.10 minimum wage at the beginning of 2021.

Still, the Senate’s vote last week was hailed by advocates for labor as a major step forward, but condemned by business-lobbying groups who fear the establishment of the $15 wage would do harm to the state’s economy.

Right now, only California and New York are following a similar course at the state level, though several cities have also recently authorized $15 minimum wages as a broader, labor-backed movement to increase low-income wages has picked up steam across the country this year in the glare of a presidential election.

New Jersey’s minimum wage was last increased in 2015, an inflationary adjustment from $8.25 to $8.38 that occurred under the terms of a minimum-wage constitutional amendment that was authorized by voters in 2013. That amendment increased the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 at the start of 2014, and it also set up annual adjustments tied to the rate of inflation. The rate remained at $8.38 for 2016 due to a lack of measurable inflation.

But advocates for low-income workers have argued that because of New Jersey’s high cost of living, it would take an hourly wage of nearly $20 to establish stability for low-income workers, and nearly $14 just to survive here.

A report released earlier this year by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank based in Trenton, demonstrated just how many people the increase could impact. The think tank found a $15 minimum wage in New Jersey would benefit an estimated 975,000 workers, or roughly one out of every four.

Last month, the full state Assembly passed the $15 minimum wage legislation, and it gained final legislative approval by passing the Senate in a 21-18 vote on Thursday. That action was hailed by those who’ve been pressing for the increase, including Analilia Mejia, director of NJ Working Families.

“Close to 1 million workers are one step closer to transforming their lives and communities, simply by gaining a family-sustaining wage,” Mejia said.

But the minimum-wage legislation got no support from Republicans along the way and now faces a review -- and likely veto -- by a very skeptical GOP governor. Christie’s office did not comment when asked on Friday about the legislation gaining final approval from lawmakers, but instead forwarded remarks the governor made on the issue while speaking to business leaders in April.

“There’s a reckless effort to raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour,” Christie said at the time. He went on to point to the potential impact the increase would have on New Jersey restaurants, farms, and other employers that would see the amount they have to pay minimum-wage workers nearly double by 2021.

“The negative effect it’s going to have on the business community, large and small, and New Jersey’s taxpayers cannot be overestimated,” Christie said.

More recently, all of the state’s major business-lobbying groups have issued warnings to legislative leaders about the impact a $15 minimum wage could have on the state’s economy, including job losses and possible recession. They expressed disappointment after Thursday’s vote.

“We warned them earlier this year that it will deter job growth and destroy what is left of our economy, and yet here we are,” said Laurie Ehlbeck, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “As usual, Gov. Christie is our only hope.”

But even if Christie ultimately vetoes the measure, legislative leaders have already made it clear that they intend to put a minimum-wage increase before voters in 2017. In fact, a similar process led to the approval of the 2013 ballot measure, when lawmakers initially sought to win that increase through legislation, only to see their effort blocked by Christie.

In the wake of Thursday’s vote, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) vowed to make sure the issue gets on the ballot in the event of another Christie veto. It takes only two simple majority votes in each house to send an issue directly to voters, and the governor has no power to block that from happening.

“It is the right thing to do for working people and it is the smart thing to do for the economy,” said Sweeney, who is expected to run for governor next year. “The higher wage will act as an economic stimulus because the money will go directly into the economy.”

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