With an eye to ’14 campaign, Democrats back minimum wage increase

After one last tweak sought by the governor, the Senate voted 21-15 Thursday night to raise Connecticut’s $8.25 minimum wage by 45 cents on Jan. 1, 2014, the start of an election year when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will be campaigning for a second term.

The bill also would impose a 30-cent raise in 2015, producing a 75-cent hourly raise over two years that would bring the state’s minimum to $9, competing with Vermont for New England’s highest minimum. Vermont’s wage is now $8.60, but it automatically rises every January to keep pace with inflation.

All 14 Republicans opposed the increase, joined by a single Democratic dissenter, Joan Hartley of Waterbury. The GOP portrayed the state’s economy as too fragile, its business reputation too tainted to push the minimum wage higher — themes to be amplified in 2014.

Democratic senators, who have refused pleas for an increase since the recession took hold in 2008, called the raise an overdue boost for the lowest paid residents of an expensive state. 

“This change will make it just a little easier for working people in our state without adversely impacting the business community,” Malloy said after passage. “Studies have shown that increasing the minimum wage is one of the best ways to get children out of poverty.”

The raises would be Connecticut’s first since Malloy was elected as the state’s first Democratic governor in 20 years, a source of increasing grumbling from organized labor.

“We’re happy anytime we see an increase in the minimum wage. It doesn’t matter if the governor is a Democrat, Republican or independent,” said John Olsen, the president of the state AFL-CIO.  “We’ll continue to fight.”

With support from Malloy and leaders of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, passage seems assured before the General Assembly’s annual session ends at midnight June 5.

Legislators were going to approve a 50 cent raise for Jan. 1 and another 25 cents a year later, but Malloy asked that they soften the blow on business in 2014, when he will be seeking re-election.

His chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, delivered that message earlier Thursday.

Senators acceded to the request and set the 2014 raise at 45 cents, meaning that minimum-wage businesses will be paying their workers $8.70 as Malloy and legislators campaign for new terms. New York’s $7.25 minimum will increase to $8 in 2014, $8.75 in 2015 and finally match Connecticut at $9 in 2016.

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, one of Malloy’s potential GOP challengers, framed his objections to the bill in a speech built on likely campaign talking points.

He told the Democrats that minimum-wage workers need help because of their policies, including a decision in 2011 to impose the 6.35 percent sales tax on inexpensive clothing, a blow to the working poor.

“You raised the sales tax,” McKinney said. “The very people you purport to help, that single mom who is struggling, working two jobs, you increased the cost to her to clothe her children 6.35 percent.”

New York and Massachusetts have regained jobs lost during the recession, while Connecticut’s economy continues to struggle, with a full recovery not expected by many economists until 2015. Republicans say the legislature needs to be sensitive to the state’s business environment.

The bill was drafted to please restaurant owners, as it left unchanged the “tip credit,” a formula setting a minimum wage for wait staff if their tips fall below a certain level.

“They listened to our concerns,” said Nicole Griffin, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, who refused last year to schedule a vote on a minimum wage bill passed by the House, said passage of an increase means more to struggling families than its defeat would mean to business.

“As the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the average employee increases, paying workers a fair minimum wage will help them keep food on their table and provide for their families,” Williams said.

A full-time minimum wage worker now earns $17,160 a year, more than $2,000 below the federal poverty limit for a family with two children, Williams said.

The last minimum-wage bill to become law was passed in 2008 over the veto of Malloy’s Republican predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell. It raised the wage from $7.65 to $8 on Jan. 1, 2009, and to $8.25 on Jan. 1, 2010, eleven months before Malloy was elected governor.

Minimum wage increases are not always partisan issues.

In 2005, the Senate voted unanimously to raise a minimum wage increase that was signed into law by Rell.

The bill approved Thursday originally had a provision that would have automatically pegged future increases to the consumer price index, but Malloy opposed indexing.

“It wasn’t just the governor,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee. Her own caucus had reservations — as did its political staff.

Democrats view minimum-wage votes as political winners, especially when they pass with every Republican in opposition. A Quinnipiac University poll in March found 75 percent of Connecticut residents supporting a minimum-wage increase.