The Democrat-led effort to raise the state's minimum wage and permanently index the rate to the consumer price index likely took a major step forward today, with the state Senate approving two versions of the bill.
The first is the Assembly version, championed by Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-East Orange), which seeks to make the wage changes through the legislative process. A second bill, originated by Sweeney, would create a constitutional referendum to enact the change.
Both measures now go to the state Assembly. The Assembly version was originally approved by the lower house in May, but needs to be voted on again due to an amendment that changes the effective date to March 1, 2013.
Oliver called the vote "great progress for hard-working New Jersey families."
"Hopefully, the governor will sign this bill as-is, but if he does not, then we'll quickly take stock and weigh our next step, including asking the people of New Jersey to decide this important matter,” she said in prepared comments.
A day ahead of the vote, Gov. Chris Christie and Sweeney traded barbs over the bill.
"I've continued to say on the minimum wage that I'm willing to consider a responsible minimum-wage package," Christie said. "But let's be clear now: We've got thousands of businesses wiped out, and is this really the moment to say to those folks, 'We're going to hit you with a $1.25 increase on March 1 and a CPI (indexing) beyond that' ?"
Christie said while he's open to negotiations, the Democrats have never met him at the bargaining table.
"I don't know what their intent is here," he said. "I've continued to say I'm willing to negotiate. It seems to be their posture is they're not willing to negotiate."
Sweeney said he has discussed the matter with Christie, but said Christie is firm in his opposition to a CPI link.
"The problem is, that's the thing that's most important to me," Sweeney said.
The Senate president rejected the argument, posed by some in the business community, that a minimum wage increase shouldn't be codified in the state constitution. He said the matter is a quality-of-life issue, and he said the constitution is there to protect and improve the quality of life of New Jersey citizens. He also said it makes good economic sense because the beneficiaries of the increase are likely to spend — not save — the extra income.
"When they get the raise, it's going right back to the grocery store, it's going back to maybe having a better place to live," he said. "It's not going back to the bank, where you're going to sock it away."
That argument so far hasn't won over business groups.
"We're still cemented in our opposition to it for a number of reasons — particularly, we don't believe the CPI should be attached to it," said Michael Egenton, vice president for government relations at the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce.
He said the American Legislative Exchange Council's "Rich States, Poor States" list, which ranks the state based on economic growth policies, put New Jersey at No. 42 this year. If the state's minimum wage had been $8.50 at the time the report was compiled, Egenton said the Garden State would have fallen to No. 47.
"Bottom line: It has an impact on business," Egenton said. "When you look at costs of doing business in different states, one of the criteria that they take a look at is state's minimum wage."
Sweeney said he intends to see the wage increase through. After today, he said, the ball will be in Christie's court.
"The governor is going to get the bill on his desk and he can sign it," Sweeney said. "We're going to give him an option to do what we think is right for the people of this state, which is raise the standard of living for the working poor."