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Controversial Ballot Question Seeks to Boost New Jersey's Minimum Wage

Other question would allow veterans groups to raise money with games of chance

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This is the fourth in a series of articles exploring the critical policy challenges that the next governor and Legislature will face, as well as their positions on these issues.

When New Jersey residents go to the polls on November 5, they’ll be asked to vote on two ballot questions. One is controversial, both locally and at the national level. The other is expected to pass so easily that the Press of Atlantic City said of it, “The Press urges a 'yes' vote on Public Question No. 1. But that's only because 'Huh? Of course' is not one of the options on the ballot.”

Public Question No. 1 would allow veterans organizations to host games of chance to benefit their own coffers. The far more divisive question comes second: Should New Jersey raise its minimum wage?

Both initiatives, if passed, would amend the state constitution.

Raising the Minimum Wage

New Jersey’s minimum wage currently matches the hourly $7.25 mandated by the federal government in 2009. The initiative seeks to immediately raise the rate to $8.25 an hour and build in automatic annual increases tied to the Consumer Price Index. Though Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a slightly more ambitious bill earlier this year, the Democratic-led legislature circumvented the governor by voting -- by a simple majority over two successive sessions, as required by law -- to place this version on the ballot.

According to New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP),if the measure passes, 241,000 working New Jerseyans who make between $7.25 and $8.25 per hour would be immediately affected, and the wages of 188,000 workers making between $8.25 and $9.25 would increase as pay scales are adjusted upward. All together, this amounts to 11 percent of the state’s workforce.

The proposed amendment is hailed by labor groups, several municipalities, Senator-elect Cory Booker, gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Barbara Buono, and The Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, a largely union-funded, D.C.-based super PAC that supports Democratic candidates in contested New Jersey legislative districts. As of October 9, the PAC had spent $686,000 to push the measure.

It’s opposed by some business groups, the New Jersey Farm Bureau, and the Washington, D.C.-based Employment Policies Institute (EPI), which has run radio and TV spots to highlight research that shows an increase could reduce opportunities for the least-skilled workers.

Echoing a common refrain, Buono has argued for the amendment’s passage by saying, “It's hard to imagine that in 2013, people working have to live on $7.25 an hour. That's not a living wage. That's a starving wage."

The New Jersey National Education Association notes that the current rate amounts to $15,080 a year for 40 weekly hours of work. “This is below poverty level for a family of three, and is not nearly enough in our state to meet basic needs for food, housing, clothing and transportation,” the group advocated in a position statement.

If the wage rises, those workers would receive an extra $1,000 to $2,000 in their paychecks each year.

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