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Business groups still hopeful for compromise on higher minimum wage

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New Jersey's business community emphasized its preference for a gradual increase to the minimum wage by state statute, rather than a constitutionally mandated hike like the one passed Thursday in the Senate.

“We had agreed with the governor’s compromise conditional veto to phase in a minimum wage increase because it’s not a sticker shock to our members,” said Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce. “Now that we know the direction of the executive branch, everything is in the spirit of his compromise when we approach the Legislature. The uncertainty is still there, but there is still room for compromise, and anything is possible in Trenton.”

Gov. Chris Christie won praise from the state’s business groups on Jan. 28, when he proposed a $1 increase to the minimum wage, phased in over three years, and boosting the state’s earned income tax credit. That was part of his conditional veto of the Legislature’s proposal, an immediate $1.25 hourly increase, to $8.50, with future hikes tied to the consumer price index.

Democrats immediately rejected that plan. On Thursday, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-West Deptford) pushed through a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour and include the CPI link in the state’s constitution, pending voter approval in November. That referendum proposal currently awaits an Assembly vote, though Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-East Orange) previously said she intends to advance it through the full Legislature.

Laurie Ehlbeck, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement that resolution would “push the smallest businesses over the edge, and it will scare away many others.”

“The Legislature is about to take a very bad economic policy and turn it into a permanently recurring mistake,” she said in a statement.

New Jersey Business & Industry Association President Philip Kirschner echoed Ehlbeck’s arguments, and said an inflation-driven annual wage increase in New Jersey’s constitution “could backfire in the long term.”

“Amending the constitution is a long and complicated process. If automatic minimum wage increases are enshrined in our constitution, it would lock New Jersey into what is essentially a labor contract,” Kirschner said in a statement.

When the measure is taken up by the Assembly, Egenton said the coalition of 11 business groups — which have voiced their opposition to a minimum wage increase and annual CPI indexing at several hearings — will urge legislators to consider Christie’s proposal.

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