Witnesses presented data, charts and white papers Tuesday about the impact of a proposal that could give Connecticut the nation’s highest minimum wage, but the fate of the bill rests on a three-way conversation that hasn’t happened yet.
House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, the sponsor of the politically charged bill, has yet to open negotiations with two fellow Democrats: a publicly reticent Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr.
“At some point, there will be a meeting, and a decision on this will be made,” said Rep. Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, a deputy speaker.
Malloy and Williams are openly skeptical about raising the minimum wage a year after the legislature approved two key benefits for low-wage workers: an earned-income tax credit and the first-in-the-nation state mandate for paid sick days.
But the minimum wage is Donovan’s marquee issue in his last year as speaker, a session that he hopes will be a springboard to his winning a Democratic primary for Congress in the 5th District in August.
Malloy could use a friend in the speaker’s office as he tries to win passage of what he hopes will be his signature achievement for 2012: education reforms that include limits on tenure, a decidedly unwelcome election-year issue for many Democrats.
At a news conference Tuesday, Malloy declined to endorse or oppose Donovan’s bill, which would raise the state’s hourly minimum of $8.25 to $9 on July 1 and $9.75 a year later. It also would index future increases to the cost of living.
“I’ll review the testimony, the evidence that’s given. And no, I’ve not reached any conclusion,” Malloy said. “I am a supporter of minimum wage, as you well know. I’m also a supporter of benchmarking and understanding what our competition is doing.”
By competition, Malloy means New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. All have lower minimum wages.
It is unlikely Malloy will stake out a public position until getting a sense of whether a minimum wage increase could pass the Senate. The prospects of the first Democratic governor in 20 years vetoing a minimum wage increase seem remote.
“I’m very embracing of the minimum wage,” Malloy said.
More realistic will be an attempt to shape the bill, if passage seems possible. Would Donovan settle for setting in law the indexing of future increases? Or would he insist on some increase this year? Would fellow Democrats even want indexing?
Minimum wage votes often are used against Republicans, and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, favors indexing, as does the off-and-on GOP presidential front-runner, Mitt Romney.
John Olsen, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said the issue would be easy if Malloy was on board.
“I let him know we support it,” said Olsen, who says no one can match the governor’s influence at the Capitol. “I’d love to have him lead on anything.”
But Olsen said he can appreciate the governor laying back for the moment.
The Senate Democratic majority has not discussed the measure in caucus.
Connecticut’s current minimum is the fourth highest in the nation behind Washington ($9.04), Oregon ($8.80) and Vermont ($8.46) — three of the 10 states that automatically index their minimum to the cost of living.
The federal minimum wage is a creature of the Great Depression, adopted in 1938. It sets the minimum in the nine states that either have no minimum or set a minimum below the federal standard.
Twenty-three states equal the federal standard of $7.25, including New York and New Jersey. Connecticut is one of 18 that exceed it, five of which are in New England: Vermont, Massachusetts ($8.00), Maine ($7.50) and Rhode Island ($7.40). New Hampshire is at the federal minimum.
On Tuesday, Donovan left no doubt that the issue remains his priority. He was the first witness to testify on his bill at a public hearing of the Labor and Public Employees Committee.
“When I first came to the Capitol as a state representative in 1992, the minimum wage was only $4.27 per hour,” he said. “Since then, we have made good progress, and Connecticut has raised the minimum wage 12 times.”
Donovan said 106,000 people in Connecticut earn the minimum wage.
Following Donovan was a long list of witnesses opposed and in support, many armed with economic data and studies.
Paul Sonn of the National Employment Law Project told the committee that the minimum wage was an issue for major national chains, not just mom-and-pop stores. Most minimum wage workers, in fact, work for national chains, he said.
Arindrajit Dube, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, said he recently published two national studies that concluded that a higher minimum wage would not cause significant job loss.
Kia Murrell of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said her data showed that increases in labor costs discourage employers from hiring.
None of their testimony is expected to affect the fate of the bill. The only voice likely to matter was not heard.