New Jersey's state Senate passed a bill Thursday to raise the minimum wage in March and then adjust it automatically each year in increases or decreases tied to the Consumer Price Index.
The party-line vote of 23-16 signals a return to politics as usual for the state Senate a month after Superstorm Sandy and sets up a showdown between the Legislature dominated by Democrats and Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who's expected to veto the bill.
The bill would hike minimum wage on March 1 by $1.25 an hour to $8.50.
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.
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 Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D.-West Deptford, 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. The latter option is unlikely to happen. The Senate vote on the resolution was 23-16.