Bridgeport – Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants Connecticut to be the first state to commit to meeting President Obama’s goal of a $10.10 minimum wage, proposing a series of increases Tuesday that would reach the mark Jan. 1, 2017.
Malloy’s election-year proposal would renew a debate that seemed settled in Connecticut, where legislation he signed last year increased the minimum to $8.70 this month and calls for a boost to $9 next January.
But the governor’s proposal would amend next year’s increase to $9.15, then commit the state to hitting $9.60 in January 2016 and $10.10 the following January.
"There is a debate happening across our country on how to tackle the growing income inequality that is detrimental to our middle class families and those who aspire to be middle class in our country," Malloy said. Part of that debate, he said, is ensuring "a good and decent wage."
Beginning with President Obama, Democrats across the country are pushing to raise the minimum wage as a popular election-year issue. In Connecticut, one Republican gubernatorial candidate cautiously embraced the idea Tuesday, and two others were critical.
Tom Foley, the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nominee who has been courting the Democratic base in his quest for a rematch this year, said the goal of a $10.10 minimum was reasonable.
“It certainly doesn’t seem to me that’s out of the range of what's required to support a family in Connecticut, the minimum required," Foley said.
Foley said he favors a multi-tiered minimum, allowing a lower wage for entry-level workers or during a training period under some circumstances.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, described Malloy’s minimum wage proposal as a political move to shore up the governor’s base.
“This will cost jobs,” McKinney said. “This will hurt small business owners and cost jobs.”
A higher minimum wage could be particularly harmful to teens, especially in urban areas, a group that already faces high unemployment rates and challenges getting their first job, said McKinney.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, another Republican seeking the GOP nomination, said the governor was playing politics, not addressing the state's business climate.
"It's completely political," Boughton said. "The issue of income disparity is real, but that is due to our lack of vision and job training and our unfriendly business environment."
In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama resurrected his proposal from the previous year: raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10 by July 2016. He noted that five states had since acted to raise their hourly minimums, Connecticut among them.
Economists are fiercely divided on whether a higher minimum wage costs jobs as it provides better wages. The Wall Street Journal, in a survey of 48 economists in December, found opposition outweighing support by a 2-1 margin.
Nearly 13 percent of the national workforce would be earning less than $10.10 by mid-2016, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which advocates for a higher minimum.
The institute said 140,000 workers would be directly affected in Connecticut in 2016. Malloy said Tuesday that an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 workers in Connecticut currently are paid the minimum wage.
Despite claims that the minimum wage heavily affects the young, the institute said only 33,000 would be age 20 or younger. Malloy emphasized the same point at his press conference in a jobs center in Bridgeport.
Malloy was cautious about a minimum wage increase in his first two years as governor, saying he was reluctant to impose a potential burden on business during a fragile recovery. Instead, Malloy successfully pushed the passage of an earned-income tax credit, often seen as a more tightly focused benefit for the working poor.
The National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small businesses, was quick to note the change, as were Republicans.
“We’d like to know what’s changed,” said Andrew Markowski, the group's state director. “Last year the governor warned that a higher minimum wage could damage small business. Now he’s calling for a 22 percent increase over the previous level. It’s very confusing.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, whose caucus unanimously opposed last year's minimum wage bill, said, "I think from the president on down, he is following the national Democratic playbook that says this is the year to raise the minimum wage."
Malloy said Tuesday that the benefits to workers now outweigh the imposition on low-wage businesses.
"The economy is getting better and stronger," he said.
The governor is likely to find strong support among the legislature's Democratic majority, whose leadership quickly endorsed the plan.
“One of the best ways to improve conditions for low-wage workers is to modestly raise the minimum wage and help lift thousands of workers out of poverty," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
“Connecticut helped start the conversation when it comes to a $10 minimum wage, and I support the governor on leading the way again," said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
AFSCME Council 4, the state's largest public-employee union, contrasted the prospect of quick action in Connecticut with the deadlock in Washington.
“With Congress paralyzed, Council 4 members are pleased to see Governor Malloy answering the president’s call for states to lead on the minimum wage issue,” said Sal Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME.
Malloy shrugged off a suggestion that the minimum-wage increase was just the latest in a series of election-year appeals to the Democratic base, including a modest tax rebate and consumer protections geared to older voters.
"What it should look like is I'm doing the right thing," Malloy said.
Malloy's endorsement of a minimum wage increase likely signals a reluctance to embrace an initiative from the Working Families Party: the so-called Walmart bill, which would give large national retailers a choice: pay their employees a still-to-be-defined living wage, or pay into a state fund meant to offset some of the costs of assisting their workers.
Asked about the bill, Malloy laughed and pointed to Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, who joined him at the press conference.
"Ask him," Malloy said.
"We can do both," Tercyak said.
Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Working Families, which also has long sought a higher minimum wage, had only praise Tuesday.
“Governor Malloy knows that $9 is not enough, and we’re glad he is leading on this issue," she said. "Once again, Connecticut has the chance to be a national leader when it comes to bread-and-butter economic issues. Everyone who works full time should be able to afford to survive, and this gets us closer to that goal.”
Obama asserted in December that there is "no solid evidence that a higher minimum wage costs jobs."
The Washington Post's fact-checker column wryly noted that the assertion is unprovable, quoting a line from The Atlantic:
“If a meteor ever smashes into the earth, leaving the planet a dark lifeless wreck, there will still be two economists walking down a desolate post-apocalyptic Connecticut Avenue arguing about whether minimum wage laws kill jobs.”
While the economists disagree, public opinion polls consistently support a higher minimum wage, giving Malloy a populist issue to promote on the eve of the scheduled opening of the 2014 session of the General Assembly. (Snow is pushing back the opening from Wednesday until Thursday.)
Aside from Foley's cautious response, perhaps the best testament to the popularity of a minimum-wage increase was the speed with which U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, a freshman seeking re-election in a battleground district, saluted the governor.
“I applaud Governor Malloy for calling for an increase in Connecticut’s minimum wage,” Esty said. “Hardworking families across Connecticut deserve a fair wage that reflects the value of their work and that keeps pace with inflation.”
She was the first to issue a statement on the proposal.