The fate of a proposed 50-cent increase in Connecticut's minimum wage still hung in political limbo Friday, even though the legislature's budget-writing panel added its endorsement to the idea.
While the Democratic-controlled Appropriations Committee approved the wage hike bill by a vote of 29-20, largely along party lines, lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle acknowledged that the issue may not be settled until just before the 2012 session ends May 9.
The bill now heads to the House of Representatives.
"It doesn't do an awful lot, but it does a little bit of something, and people in this state deserve a little something," said Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee as well as a member of the Appropriations panel. "Hopefully it will help some people living in desperate poverty. It's not going to break the bank. ... I really think this is something we owe to the workers of the state of Connecticut."
The state minimum wage of $8.25 per hour would rise to $8.75 next January, and then to $9.25 Jan. 1, 2014. Each January after that, the wage would rise in proportion to the Consumer Price Index, one of the primary measures of inflation.
Democratic lawmakers argued that the increase not only would assist young, part-time workers saving for school and some of Connecticut's poorest working households, but also would provide a modest economic boost. That's because many of those who work for minimum wage are able to save little or none of their earnings, they said.
"They will be spending it because they have to spend it ... for rent or for food," said Sen. Edwin Gomes, D-Bridgeport. "You are looking at a consumer who is going to spend every dime because he can't do anything else."
Democrats also argued that minors and other young workers earning minimum wage are doing more than saving for college. "They have to bring home money to help their families, and it's not just in the Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven areas," said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. "It's kids all over this state who are looking for help, who are looking for employment."
But Republican legislators argued that raising the minimum wage while businesses are still recovering from the last recession is a ticket to higher unemployment. Rather than boost overall salary accounts, businesses will reduce hours and jobs to pay for the minimum wage hike, they argued.
"A lot of people are going to lose their jobs because of this," said Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton. "A lot of people are going to lose their jobs because of this."
The ranking GOP senator on the panel, Robert Kane of Watertown, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to freeze the minimum wage for seasonal employees and for workers age 22 and younger, arguing this group is particularly vulnerable to job cuts.
"The reality of the situation is this population has 25 percent unemployment," Kane said. "We're not looking to hinder anyone. We're going to help people get employment."
Lobbyists for several key business groups opposed to the increase said they think many lawmakers are reluctant to boost the minimum wage now.
"Our sense is there are members in both chambers, both caucuses, who understand this is not the right time to increase the minimum wage, particularly for small retailers," said Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association.
The executive director of the Connecticut Restaurants Association, Nicole Griffin, said, "Our members are still trying to recover and are just starting to see an upswing."
And Connecticut Business and Industry Association assistant counsel Kia Murrell said boosting the minimum wage can have a ripple effect that reaches businesses that already pay more. "When you raise the floor, businesses find you have to bump up middle-tier workers as well," she said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, also has been cautious about a minimum wage increase at this time.
Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba noted that the governor is "a longtime supporter of the minimum wage," but also said that "given the current business climate, the governor wants to ensure that any new legislation won't harm our growing recovery."
Connecticut created more than 17,000 private sector jobs last year, Doba said, adding that "it's progress we need to continue. (The governor) looks forward to watching the debate on this issue as it proceeds through the legislature."