Organized labor began its push to increase Connecticut's minimum wage Thursday without any sign that a political establishment solidly controlled by a Democratic governor and legislature is ready to boost an $8.25 wage that last increased three years ago.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, testified at a public hearing in support of a wage increase blocked by his caucus last year in an awkward, intra-party showdown with the now-departed House speaker, Christopher Donovan.
But Looney made no claim of broader Senate support in the face of an anemic economy, and both the new House speaker, J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy are noncommittal.
"I am skeptical right now about the timing," Sharkey said. "I'll keep an open mind about it. I'd rather allow the committee process to play itself out, and I want to see what the Senate wants to do about it."
In other words, Sharkey is unwilling to do what his predecessor did last year. Donovan pushed hard and won passage in the House on a party-line vote, even as Senate leaders made clear they would not take a vote.
This year, the minimum-wage increase is a Senate bill, meaning the House will debate the measure only after passage by the Senate.
The state's hourly minimum wage has been $8.25 since Jan. 1, 2010. A labor committee bill would increase it by $1.50 over two years, with a bump to $9 in July 2013 and to $9.75 in July 2014. It also would index future increases to inflation.
The minimum wage seldom rises or falls strictly on the merits. Instead, the issue is a political Rorschach test, something that reveals whether the political establishment feels it needs to make a gesture to business or labor.
Last year, a majority of Senate Democrats refused to pass an increase after imposing the nation's first state mandate for paid sick time by certain private employers in 2011. Democrats also had passed an earned-income tax credit to help low-wage workers, which they consider a stronger anti-poverty measure than the minimum wage.
"The governor has long been a supporter of a good and decent minimum wage," said his spokesman, Andrew Doba. "While he certainly supports the ideals behind this legislation, we must be mindful of the needs of businesses, especially given the current economic climate."
The governor's office offers the same reminder as do Senate Democrats: It already has delivered for low-wage families.
"Since taking office," Doba said, "the governor has signed legislation enacting both a historic state-based Earned Income Tax Credit and paid sick leave -- two proposals that will provide a tremendous lift for working families."
Business interests say the paid-sick day law added to the perception found in several polls that Connecticut is unfriendly to business.
"It's a delicate balance," Sharkey said Thursday. "We need to be sure we are caring for those who need this kind of support to be able to make a living wage and provide for themselves and their families. At the same time, we have got to be mindful of how the state is perceived."
This year, the issue comes with the added dimension of new leadership: Donovan, who was labor's most important friend in Hartford, is gone.
Sharkey has a strong labor voting record, but he is not expected to be as aggressive an advocate of labor as was Donovan, a former labor organizer.
The General Assembly's Labor and Public Employees Committee has two new co-chairs, Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. Both are seen as strong labor allies.
Osten, a freshman who succeeded Edith Prague, one of the Senate's strongest advocates of a higher minimum wage, challenged the assumption there is a correlation between the minimum wage and business environment.
"Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri have no minimum wage requirements. Forbes rates them 34th, 40th and 46th in the nation for places to do business," Osten said. "On the other hand, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Colorado all have minimum wages higher than the federal standard. Forbes ranks them 17, 14th, 11th and 5th."
While Connecticut has one of the highest minimum wages in the United States, the state also has one of the highest costs of living, Osten said.
The Connecticut Restaurant Association and New England Convenience Store Association oppose an increase.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, who has voted for minimum-wage increases in strong economies, said the timing is wrong.
"We just saw 1,800 jobs lost," he said.
Connecticut is one of 19 states with a minimum wage greater than the federal standard of $7.25. It ranks second in New England behind Vermont, which has a minimum wage of $8.60. Its border states have wages of $8 in Massachusetts, $7.75 in Rhode Island and $7.25 in New York.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed raising the rate to $8.75, though he called that the starting point for negotiations with New York's divided legislature.
"We put out a set of proposals, and they become starting points. And then we have discussions," he told Crain's New York Business. "You have to start somewhere, right?"
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