The New Jersey Assembly tackled jobs, economic development and the minimum wage Monday in its last scheduled session of the year.
The Assembly's docket Monday included more than 20 bills designed to jump-start the state's economy in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The package of bills was proposed by Assembly Democrats on Dec. 4 and voted out of committee last week.
The package includes incentives for hiring veterans and unemployed New Jerseyans, tax credits for technology firms, and a trio of bills designed to cut red tape, among other moves. One bill would allow Internet gaming at Atlantic City casinos. Some of the bills are new, others have been passed before but didn't make it past Gov. Chris Christie's desk.
In the latter category is the so-called "Back to Work NJ" program, which lets laid-off workers continue to collect unemployment benefits while doing on-the-job training with qualified employers. The program is based on a similar program in Georgia. The measure has passed the Legislature twice before, but was stopped by Christie's veto pen.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-East Orange) said she hopes this version of the bill finds support from Christie.
"This program has proven successful elsewhere, which is why I remain committed to seeing this bill signed into law and am ready to work with anyone to see that it happens," Oliver said, in a press release.
The Assembly also approved a resolution to put a minimum wage increase to New Jersey voters. The referendum would ask residents to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25, and institute automatic increases based on inflation. It would need to pass both houses of the Legislature a second time before it could be placed on the ballot.
Earlier this month, the Assembly approved a similar bill that would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 and include automatic inflation adjustments. That bill passed both houses and is now awaiting action by Gov. Chris Christie. If the governor signs it, it could render the referendum moot.
Business groups have been vocal opponents of the minimum wage increase, arguing it would hurt businesses at a time when many are still recovering from Sandy. But Oliver argued the minimum wage bump would actually help the economy by increasing consumer spending.
"A stronger minimum wage will help restore the consumer spending that powers our economy and that local businesses need in order to grow," she said. "A robust minimum wage is a key building block of sustainable economic recovery. The time for economic rebound is now, not later."
Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-Denville) said the measure is misguided.
"Republican legislators and Governor Christie will not support legislation that will harm our state’s businesses and make it harder to create jobs," Bucco said.
He said the vote represented an "end-around the governor" and "a ridiculous misuse of the state constitution."
Though the minimum wage issue generally divides the chamber along partisan lines, Legislators united to pass a resolution urging Congress to quickly authorize the $60.4 billion in Sandy recovery funds requested by President Barack Obama. The resolution, jointly sponsored by Oliver and Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), passed unanimously.
In a press release, Bramnick said New Jersey taxpayers have helped other Americans during times of natural disaster.
"All we are asking is that Congress act swiftly and approve the assistance requested by the President so that the recovery process can move forward and we can help rebuild the communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy," Bramnick said.