The election-year effort by House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, to raise the $8.25 minimum wage and index it to inflation energizes his labor base and creates tension with a less-than-enthusiastic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The push to pass a minimum wage law for the first time since 2008, when Democrats overrode the veto of Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell to approve increases that took effect in 2009 and 2010, is good politics for Donovan, less so for Malloy.
Donovan is one of three candidates for the Democratic nomination for the open seat in the 5th Congressional District, and previous polling shows the minimum wage is popular with Connecticut voters, especially likely Democratic primary voters.
The speaker is unlikely to be distressed by not being in sync with Malloy on the minimum wage: Malloy’s reluctance should give Donovan’s leadership on the issue more cachet. If Malloy endorsed the idea, it would become his, not Donovan’s.
At a news conference Tuesday, Donovan proposed legislation that would increase the hourly minimum wage by $1.50 in two steps, jumping to $9 on July 1, 2012, and $9.75 on July 1, 2013.
The increase would be more than double the bump passed in 2008, when the $7.65 wage rose by 60 cents in two steps, going to $8 on Jan. 1, 2009, and $8.25 on Jan. 1, 2010.
Donovan said the increase is badly needed, given that many laid-off Connecticut workers have found jobs that only pay minimum wage, which comes to $330 for a 40-hour workweek.
“We have to do our best as a society, as members of the General Assembly, to say, ‘We understand that you are working hard. We want to make sure you get enough wages, so you are not poor.’ That’s what Connecticut does,” Donovan said.
He was introduced by Lori Pelletier, a top official of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, as “a true friend of labor.” A dozen Democratic lawmakers and members of the Working Families Party stood behind them.
Donovan’s news conference came one day after the speaker of the New York Assembly proposed increasing the minimum wage.
In 2008, a Quinnipiac University poll found that the state’s voters approved the increase, 81 percent to 16 percent. Republicans were in favor, 63 percent to 33 percent.
The politics for Malloy, who does not face re-election until 2014, are more complex. His narrow victory in 2010 owed much to labor, but he walked carefully in the first year as governor, with bold overtures to unions and a constant outreach to businesses.
Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years, scored a huge win for labor last year, overcoming years of resistance by business interests to pass the nation’s first state law requiring some private employers to offer paid sick days.
Even before that victory, Malloy had been aggressively courting business, trying to demonstrate that improving the state’s economic climate is his top priority — and signaling that a minimum-wage fight is not welcome in 2012.
“I’m not slamming any doors,” Malloy said Tuesday. “I’m not saying no.”
Malloy pointedly noted that he already has won passage of two significant benefits for minimum-wage workers: the paid-sick days law and an earned-income tax credit.
It is hard to imagine Malloy vetoing a minimum-wage increase. More likely would be efforts by the administration to negotiate a smaller increase than $1.50.
Republicans, meanwhile, have supported a minimum-wage increase in some years, then voted nearly as a bloc against it in other years.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said the GOP is likely to be opposed in 2012, even though he and Donovan have talked about the minimum as an area of common ground in Connecticut for Democrats and Republicans.
“We both agree about the importance of the minimum wage. I think where we disagree is the timing,” Cafero said. “We are coming through and still are in the midst of a devastating recession for Connecticut.”
Cafero said he was open to the idea of indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
The top Republican in the House did not see Donovan’s congressional campaign as the motive to seek the increase this year. Cafero, who has a friendly rivalry with the speaker, said the position is consistent with Donovan’s 20-year career.
“He is what he is. He is comfortable in his own skin,” Cafero said. “If he puts positions like this forth, quite frankly, I think Chris would do that if he was a candidate for Congress or not.”