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

Backers contend people can’t live on $7.25 an hour while foes argue hike to $8.25 would hurt business, eliminate jobs.

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.

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