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Along Party Lines, New Jersey State Senate Votes To Increase Minimum Wage

Senate President On Possible Veto: 'We're Not Asking His Permission'
New Jersey State House - Trenton, NJ - File Photo

New Jersey State House (file/credit: Marion Touvel/Wikimedia Commons)

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TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Voting strictly along party lines, New Jersey’s state Senate voted Thursday evening to raise the state’s minimum wage in March and then adjust it automatically each year in amounts tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Starting in March, the bill would increase the minimum wage by $1.25, to $8.50 per hour. That amounts to a more than 17 percent increase in the minimum wage.

The measure passed 23-16 without a single Republican vote in the affirmative.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney spoke to WCBS 880 after the vote.

“There really is a philosophy difference between the two parties, and it clearly is a philosophy issue. What was really troubling is they were trying to blame the hurricane, which, they were opposing this bill before the hurricane and now everyone invokes the hurricane as the reason why they can’t vote on it,” Sweeney said.

Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, is expected to veto the measure.

Anticipating a veto, the Senate also took a first step Thursday toward handing the question over to citizens as a ballot measure to amend the state constitution.

“There’s no room to compromise. I firmly believe the working poor shouldn’t wait for elected officials every seven years to have their conscience bother them. So the governor can go ahead and veto it,” Sweeney told WCBS 880. “He can veto it if he wants. I have a constitutional amendment coming right behind it and if he doesn’t want to do it, we’re taking it right to the people. We’re not asking his permission.”

Sweeney also criticized business leaders for what he called a short-sighted view of the minimum wage increase.

“We even offered the business community, when I was dealing with the bill, to have protections against big spikes in the CPI. And they’re just, ‘we’re never going to support this no matter what, no matter how.’ And the states that have higher minimum wages, almost every one of the state’s economies I think except for one is doing better than New Jersey economically right now,” Sweeney told WCBS 880.

The aftermath of Sandy, which changed so much about the state, was ever-present in Thursday’s two-hour debate on the Senate floor, giving another wrinkle to a debate that’s largely a moral and philosophical battle. It was still that on the Senate floor Thursday, with Republicans saying a minimum wage increase would hurt businesses and could force layoffs, and Democrats asserting that it’s wrong for New Jerseyans to be paid so little in a place where it’s expensive to live.

Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Red Bank, said she supports raising minimum wage but said the storm made this the wrong time to do it. She told of small shore business owners “still sweeping up glass” and wondering if their businesses would survive the winter. “Our Legislature’s first response following a hurricane that devastated thousands is not a helping hand but a greater burden,” she said.

Democrats argued that increasing the minimum wage is essential for helping lower-income people, and that even the higher amount isn’t enough to support a family.

“Can you live on $8.50 an hour?” asked Sen. Richard Codey, D-Roseland. “And most of these people are without benefits. How would you feed your family? How would you educate them?”

And Sen. Jim Whalen, D-Atlantic City, said that looking at the destruction of Sandy through the lens of businesses owners only is a mistake.

“Let’s not draw a line and say the business owners and the property owners, they will get the benefit, but those who need it most, the poorest of our state, the minimum wage earners, don’t get it,” he said.

The issue is not settled. Christie has not publicly said he would veto the bill, but Sweeney said Christie told him privately that he would nix it over the automatic increases.

Before the bill heads to the governor’s desk, it will go back to the Assembly on Monday. That chamber voted in May to hike the minimum wage but will need to vote anew to adjust the start date from July 1 of this year to March 1.

The Assembly is also expected to take up the proposed amendment to the state constitution, which could be on the ballot in November 2013.

To force a public vote on it, both houses would have to pass a resolution in consecutive years – or pass it once with three-fifths of the members of their chamber.

New Jersey’s minimum wage, which has been $7.25 per hour since 2010, is the same as the federal minimum and that of 23 other states. A minimum wage earner who works 40 hours grosses $290 per week.

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)