The lights burned throughout the night in the House chamber. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Democratic leaders answered questions from the media following the House vote to institute a minimum wage hike. Jenna Carlesso / CT Mirror

Democrats and Republicans sharply split in an overnight debate over whether raising Connecticut’s $10.10 minimum wage to $15 over four-and-a-half years would be an overdue lift to low-wage workers or an ill-considered blow to small businesses in a state that has yet to fully recover from the Great Recession of 2008.

By a vote of  85-59 on Thursday, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives passed and sent to the Senate what would be the first minimum-wage bill adopted by the General Assembly since March 2014. It includes five raises, none exceeding $1, that would increase the hourly minimum by 90 cents to $11 on Oct. 1 and reach $15 on Oct. 15, 2023.

Over the course of a debate that limped into its 13th hour after 10 a.m., Democrats and Republicans  viewed and interpreted the minimum wage from opposite sides of a wide cultural, racial, social and political gulf.

On one side, Democrats saw the the minimum wage as a badly needed corrective to an economy that increasingly traps adults in low-wage jobs with little chance of advancement. On the other, many Republicans said they still see minimum-wage jobs as a young person’s entry to the world of work and a higher mandated wage as a potent threat to Connecticut economy that has not seen economic growth in more than a decade.

They lectured each other on economics and economic equality.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said after the vote that the minimum wage underscores the differences between the parties, and he suggested that the unanimous GOP opposition should cost the party in some of blue-collar strongholds, where President Trump ran well in 2016. Two Democrats, Pat Boyd of Pomfret and Chris Ziogas of Bristol, voted with the GOP.

“There was this argument after the elections about who represents blue-collar workers and blue-collar voters, right? When you talk about not just inner cities, but Naugatuck Valley, eastern Connecticut, where you have poverty, where you have people who need to make more money to provide for their families,” Ritter said. “Well, today was a big vote to test that.”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, demurred, downplaying the significance of a party-line vote, even one preceded by a grueling 14-hour debate.

“I don’t think it sharpens the differences at all,” Klarides said. “I think we go back on Tuesday and start debating other bills. Two days ago, we all came together on a gun bill, which hasn’t happened since I don’t know when.”

If nothing else, the debate reinforced that elections have consequences.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democratic businessman, ran last year on a promise to raise the minimum wage to $15, as did many Democratic candidates for the General Assembly. Democrats made their first legislative gains in a decade, and they now have majorities of 90-60 in the House (with a 91st member, the winner of a special election, arriving soon) and 22-14 in the Senate.

With no chance of reconciling those inter-party differences, the final shaping of the bill was an internal matter for Democrats, who hustled Wednesday to resolve differences between the House and Senate and liberals and moderates. Last-minute negotiations with Senate Democrats over revisions designed to bring moderate Democrats on board delayed the start of the House debate until a few minutes after 10 p.m.

Rep. Robyn Porter, leading the debate for the bill. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said a compromise struck with the House Democratic leadership would result in a slightly longer path to $15 than the four years sought by Lamont, who was cross-endorsed by the union-funded Working Families Party.

The four-year version would have raised the minimum by $1.15 to $11.25 in January, followed by increases of $1.25 in each of the following three years until reaching $15 on Jan. 1, 2023. Looney said the moderates in his party wanted no annual increase to exceed $1. 

The new version would bring the minimum to $11 on Oct. 1, $12 on Sept. 1, 2020, $13 on Aug. 1, 2021, $14 on July 1, 2022 and $15 on Oct. 15, 2023. It would require the governor and legislature to consider freezing the wage if the economy sours.

After 2023, the minimum wage would be pegged to the Employment Cost Index, a measure of wage growth calculated by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But Republicans argued that the compromise still was too burdensome to business. 

“It’s too soon, too fast, too much,” said Rep. Joe Polletta of Watertown, the ranking House Republican on the Labor and Public Employees Committee. “The small-business community has come out in strong opposition to this.”

Polletta, the vice president of a family-owned real estate business and a convert to the Republican Party, said Connecticut’s economy is too fragile for a minimum wage increase. As a Democrat running for the House in 2014, Polletta supported a $15 minimum wage as he sought and obtained the cross-endorsement of the Working Families Party.

“Since then, I’ve evolved,” he said outside the House chamber.

Not all businesses were opposed. Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said his members were pleased that the bill would not raise the $6.38 minimum wage for tipped workers.

Fatigue was evident at 9 a.m.. in the faces of Reps. Robyn Porter and Roland Lemar, after 11 hours of debating the minimum wage. Porter spent the night defending the bill. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

The all-nighter in the House was a one-sided debate in which a choreographed lineup of Republicans proposed amendments and posed questions to the lead sponsor, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, long a flash point for debates over questions of economic growth vs. economic justice.

“This has been a long time coming,” Porter said of the debate, wearing a red $15 button on the lapel of her yellow jacket.

Ritter, whose position as majority leader gives him the right to the last word in debates, recognized Porter’s long night and day of explaining and defending the bill by yielding his time to her. She rose as the clock ticked towards noon.

“It’s been a long, hard struggle, and I’m not just talking about this debate,” said Porter, a single mother who says she can readily identify with everyone who struggles financially. Fifteen dollars is not a living wage, but she said, “It is a step forward.”

Five hours earlier, Rep. Joseph Zullo, R-East Haven, who flipped a blue-collar seat long held by Democrats in a special election this year, complimented Porter for her stamina and commitment for defending the bill over nine hours, while calling its contents wrong-headed.

Porter and the few other Democrats who rose to speak in the early hours of the debate called the minimum-wage increase a modest step toward helping working families towards a living wage. Rep. Mary Mushinsky of Wallingford, the longest-serving member of the House, said just paying for adequate housing in her district requires a single worker to earn $24 an hour or a couple $12 each.

To Republicans, it would be a job-killer.

Klarides, whose district stretches from the Naugatuck Valley town of Derby to the upscale New Haven suburb of Woodbridge, said everyone can debate the impact of a minimum-wage increase, but not the fact that Connecticut’s economy is struggling, largely missing the recovery that has lifted other states.

“That is data,” Klarides said. “That is pure, unadulterated data.”

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who owns the Connecticut Sportsplex, said he would have to lay off full-time adult workers to pay the higher minimum to his part-time student employees. The bill allows employers to pay 16 and 17-year-old employees a lower wage for up to 90 days, a provision Candelora called insufficient.

A majority of workers paid the federal minimum of $7.25, a rate exceeded by the state minimums of every northeastern state except New Hampshire, are young and part-time workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But advocates of a $15 minimum say the picture in Connecticut and other states with higher minimums is far different.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney talking about the minimum wage. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

“The typical minimum-wage worker is female and approaching middle age,” said Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, who was a policy analyst on women’s issues before joining the House. They aren’t unionized and have few protections other than the minimum wage, she said.

Palm said the image of minimum-wage jobs as entries to the workforce and springboards to advancement are largely a myth: Only five percent advance to a higher wage in a year.

Research by the Economic Policy Institute indicates that 57 percent of minimum-wage workers overall are full-time employees, 37 percent are 40 or older and 28 percent have children. Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, the owner of two natural food stores, said the buying power of the minimum wage peaked in the 1970s, and it would be $21 today had it kept pace with inflation.

Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, conceded that a larger segment of the workforce is struggling to reach “the ladder of success.” But his conclusion was that a higher minimum wage would eliminate the first rung on that ladder, harming the workers the bill is intended to benefit by once again branding Connecticut as hostile to business.

“It’s a signal and a symbol,” O’Neill said.

He was one in a procession of Republicans who rose to highlight the costs of a higher minimum wage to non-profit agencies and municipalities, among others. Democrats countered by saying it would grant raises to 332,000 minimum-wage workers. In one Hartford district alone, the bill would mean a raise for 4,330 constituents, Porter said.

“If our economy doesn’t work for everyone, then it doesn’t work. It’s that simple,” Lamont said in a statement issued after the vote.

At a public hearing in March, few witnesses defended the sufficiency of the current wage, which yields an annual income of $21,000 to someone who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Once the region’s highest, the state’s minimum is lower than the wages in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine.

The 2014 minimum wage law raised a $8.70 minimum wage — then the second-highest in New England and fourth-highest nationally — to $9.15 in 2015, $9.60 in 2016 and $10.10 in 2017.

With an 18-18 tie in the Senate in 2017 and 2018, Democrats were unable to pass a raise, but they won solid majorities in both chambers last fall. One of the 18, Sen. Joan V. Hartley, D-Waterbury, blocked passage in the previous term by withholding her support.

On Wednesday, Hartley said she would not vote for the current bill unless it is amended to stretch out the implementation schedule to six years. But Hartley no longer has a veto. Her defection this year still would leave 21 potential Democratic votes in the Senate.

The debate was long, the hour late and the chamber at times had many vacant seats. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org
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Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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8 Comments

  1. Democrats and their one party rule are doing their best to kill this state. The taxes and spending are unending, the family leave bill takes money out of all paychecks, there are no cuts to the budget, and now a job-killing minimum wage increase is another unfunded mandate that will impact businesses and non-profits.

    The slow moving train wreck called the Connecticut economy is picking up steam. We’re circling the fiscal drain folks.

  2. Repeatedly pointing out here all of the negative impacts of a jacked up minimum wage, and most other “Progressive” agenda items, does little good in Far Left-controlled Connecticut, so I will simply ask Mr. Pazniokas and any readers who may know the real answer, the following question:

    Do any Connecticut public sector union employees have so-called ‘me too” clauses in their contracts? If they do, it wouldn’t be just min wage employees getting quite a boost. If there are, in most of the cases that will mean even larger pension requirements (that we already cannot afford). Even if there are no such clauses, you know that subsequent contract negotiations will start with “unskilled workers got a 50% boost so we need much more.”

    Thank you, in advance, for FACTUAL responses.

    1. YES… Great question… I too am under the impression that basic union wages are based on the prevailing minimum wage. If so, then there will be a huge boost in all union wages which translates into tens of millions of new tax payer funded pay increases. It will also raise the cost of any project where the pay scale is governed by “prevailing wage” which also comes from tax payers. Pazniokes and other journalist like Christine Stuart write mind numbingly long & detailed pieces on these subjects BUT seem to always steer clear of many of the negative aspects of such bills while leaning in on democrat viewpoints!

  3. Does anyone else find it unusual that this debate takes place overnight (when no one is watching) and Rep. Porter nor any other Democrat has presented hard evidence passing this will not hurt entry level employment, especially with small independent businesses. Why are they not asking the business community what the consequences of their actions will be?

    CT is beginning to look an awful like an Ayn Rand novel. Let’s hope the senate brings some common sense to the vote because there are many other ways to help low income people make more money – this is not one of them. In my opinion all this will do is hurt entry level employment and the evidence from Seattle (a booming city economy) seems to support that.

  4. As already discussed, employers can respond with closure, merger, and management of hours (including layoffs) to avoid increasing payrolls substantially. And, as the CBO found, most gains to employees come as a reduction in employers’ income, so total income in CT is unlikely to change much.
    Still, there’s one employer in the state likely to pay a lot more: the state itself. Privatizing services has led to a lot of employment of lower wage employees, and the state has been parsimonious about payments. The legislature has acknowledged that raises have been hard to come by.
    And the nursing home situation is an example of what happens when state-funded providers try layoffs. The federal government has already complained about the results of under-staffing. Courts have also been known to take an interest in adequate service delivery.
    I wonder if the fiscal note indicated the degree to which the state will be paying more, even while the amount of new income tax revenue from less well-paid people doesn’t grow much. The increased deficit is one more problem for the legislature to deal with.

  5. The contrast in the closing arguments of this epic debate was stark. The Republicans closing arguments were based reason, logic, economic data and overall common sense but Rep. Porters (Democrat) went on a very strange diatribe about her faith in God and that this “would all work out because businesses in her district said they will figure it (the minimum wage) out”.

    Ms. Porter … here is how they will figure it out …. they will reduce their expenses by laying people off because the alternate is shutting their business down.

  6. In 2015 the Congressional Budget Office reported that as little as 7 percent of the net change in pay brought by a $15 minimum wage goes toward those in poverty. Nearly half of the pay change goes to workers in households earning more than three times the poverty line; 13 percent goes to households earning more than six times the line.

    Higher minimum wages also tend to eliminate entry-level jobs. Though not glamorous, low-wage jobs allow inexperienced workers to develop skills and establish a work history that allows them to move on to higher-paying jobs.

    However, as minimum wages rise and jobs are eliminated from the marketplace, those who aspire to better their lives are robbed of opportunities for critical experience to develop job skills and prove themselves worthy of promotion.

    Minimum wage increases are the product of good intentions, but destroying job prospects is no way to help the poor.

  7. Were any forecasts presented as to how raising the minimum wage would positively impact CT’s decade long stagnant economy, employment levels and income levels of those affected ?
    The large professional economics literature isn’t supportive here of boosting minimum wage in order to re-invigorate long stagnant State economies. Best view increased minimum wages as as a new tax in the best CT tradition.

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