With partisan votes on a pocketbook issue that the White House and Connecticut Democrats hope will mobilize voters this fall, the General Assembly voted Wednesday for legislation that would raise the state's $8.70 minimum wage to $10.10 by January 2017.
The bill, which was approved 21-14 in the Senate and 87-54 in the House, became an instant political talking point for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and President Obama. Malloy is to sign the bill Thursday evening at Cafe Beauregard, the New Britain restaurant where Obama dined before a minimum-wage rally three weeks ago.
The state is the first to pass legislation establishing a $10.10 minimum wage. With a $9.32 minimum, Washington state now has the highest.
“I am proud that Connecticut is once again a leader on an issue of national importance. Increasing the minimum wage is not just good for workers, it’s also good for business,” said Malloy, a first-term Democrat facing re-election.
In a statement issued by the White House, Obama said Connecticut set an example with its overwhelming passage of a state law that meets his goal for the nation.
"But to truly make sure our economy rewards the hard work of every American, Congress must act," Obama said. "I hope members of Congress, governors, state legislators and business leaders across our country will follow Connecticut’s lead to help ensure that no American who works full time has to raise a family in poverty, and that every American who works hard has the chance to get ahead."
The debate Wednesday was designed to establish competing campaign narratives: Democrats predicted their votes will lift thousands from poverty, while Republicans warned of job losses.
"This is really about the men and women who struggle to provide for themselves and their families. Those men and women deserve an honest wage for a hard day's work," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
“I believe it is better to have a job at the current rate, than no job at all,” said Sen. Kevin C. Kelly, R-Stratford.
In the Senate, every Democrat except Sen. Joan V. Hartley of Waterbury, which has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, voted for the measure. Every Republican except the absent Sen. Jason Welch of Bristol was opposed.
In the House, four Democrats joined 50 Republicans in opposition: Joe Diminico of Manchester, John K. Hampton of Simsbury, James Maroney of Milford and Jonathan Steinberg of Westport.
The Connecticut votes came as the White House and congressional Democrats stepped up their emphasis on the minimum wage and other pocketbook issues, including the cost of college loans.
“We think we need a sword and a shield,” U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told the New York Times, referring to Democrats' defensiveness about health care policy. “I don’t think we’ll ever overcome the Republican attacks on Obamacare," he said, "but I think we can mute it greatly.”
In Washington, the strategy is to force GOP votes against the minimum wage. In Connecticut, with comfortable Democratic majorities in both chambers, the goal was to pass and promote the measure.
The bill would raise the state minimum wage on Jan. 1 in each of the next three years to $9.15 in 2015, $9.60 in 2016 and $10.10 in 2017.
Malloy had expressed wariness about raising the minimum wage while the state’s economy slowly recovers from the 2008 recession. In January 2013, his spokesman, Andrew Doba, said this of a proposed increase: "The governor has long been a supporter of a good and decent minimum wage. While he certainly supports the ideals behind this legislation, we must be mindful of the needs of businesses, especially given the current economic climate."
He eventually relented and signed a bill that raised the minimum from $8.25 to $8.70 and would have increased it again next January to $9.
That seemed to be the last word on the issue for another two years until Malloy unexpectedly embraced the $10.10 goal that Obama set for the nation, pledging that Connecticut would be among the first to reach it.
"Folks, we just did this a year ago," said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. "Did we get it wrong a year ago?"
Malloy has campaigned on the minimum in Washington and in Connecticut, defending Obama’s call for a $10.10 federal wage outside the White House in a video that’s gone viral, then hosting the president at a rally in New Britain.
On Tuesday, Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman spoke at a rally outside a hardware store in Hartford’s North End, greeting a union-financed bus traveling the country emblazoned with the message, “GIVE AMERICA A RAISE.”
Republicans, several of whom have voted for higher minimum wages in better economies, said nothing has changed since 2012 to justify Malloy’s full-throated embrace of a $10.10 minimum wage except a desire by Democrats to frame the 2014 election around economic equality.
“Why does this governor feel the need to grab the flag and run down the field with it?” asked Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven.
Cafero, who is leaving the legislature after 22 years, said the minimum wage has increased 11 times during his tenure, occasionally with his support. He said the increase will worsen unemployment among teens, now above 40 percent in Connecticut's cities.
Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, one of the six Republicans trying to unseat Malloy, said Democrats are drawing false hope from an issue that polls well, but carries risk of a business backlash in a state still struggling to recover from the 2008 recession.
Republicans had the power to delay a vote, but they said they welcomed the debate and a chance to engage the governor.
“I already know his playbook. We’ve already seen it play out over the last couple of weeks,” McKinney said. “The statements he’s made about lifting people out of poverty are inconsistent with someone who has raised their taxes dramatically.”
The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Analysis offered lawmakers no insight into the impact of the bill. Its bill analysis did not address job loss or a reduction in poverty.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, a longtime proponent of a higher minimum wage, said the increase was necessary to help the poorest of the working poor, an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 people.
“We are talking about a struggling population here. It’s just a matter of simple equity to give them a modest increase,” Looney said.
Republicans made the same point throughout the afternoon and evening, on the floor of the Senate and then the House: Increasing the minimum may be popular, but it comes at the detriment of the business climate.
“This is feel good legislation. That’s all it is," said Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury.
A series of GOP amendments failed. One would have pegged the state minimum to a regional average of several northeastern states. Another would have set a part-time wage of $9 for employees who work no more than 15 hours a week.
State legislative analysts says a higher minimum will increase costs for child care paid by the state through the Office of Early Childhood by $785,000 in the 2016 fiscal year, by $3.1 million in 2017 and $4.6 million in the 2018.
According to labor force statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 5 percent of hourly workers nationally are paid at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Connecticut's current $8.70 minimum is the second highest in New England and fourth highest in the nation. It trails Washington's $9.32, Oregon's $9.10 and Vermont's $8.73. Its three bordering states of New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island all are at $8.