The Times, Trenton

Wage Hike Proposal Expected

The Times, Trenton — Friday, January 7, 2005

Staff Writer

Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey is expected during Tuesday's State of the State address to propose increasing the state's minimum wage to $7 per hour, a state senator said yesterday as advocates continued to rally for such an increase.

Codey has said he supports an increased minimum wage but hasn't revealed details of what he has in mind. Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Deptford, has proposed legislation that would increase the minimum wage to $7 per hour and said Codey supports that amount and could discuss it Tuesday.

"That's what we think is going to happen," said Sweeney, whose legislation also calls for annual minimum wage adjustments.

Sweeney said he is "confident" Codey will call for increasing the minimum wage to $7 per hour.

"There is a commitment from Gov. Codey," Sweeney said. "He's made it very clear."

Sweeney said the only uncertainty is how the annual adjustments would be decided. His bill proposes annual adjustments to make the minimum wage equal to 30 percent of the average hourly wage earned by New Jersey workers - or to the federal minimum wage, whichever is higher.

"Is it every other year? Annually? That's what's being discussed right now," Sweeney said.

Codey administration officials wouldn't discuss Tuesday's speech but Codey spokesman Sean Darcy said, "Gov. Codey has consistently expressed his support for increasing the minimum wage. We continue to discuss proposals with the Legislature."

The state hasn't increased the minimum wage since 1999, when then-Gov. Christie Whitman approved matching the state's minimum wage to the federal minimum wage, which was $5.15 per hour and hasn't changed.

"It's something that's been overlooked for too many years now," Sweeney said. "We cannot depend on the federal government for decisions like that, especially with the cost of living in New Jersey being what it is."

Lobbying on both sides of the issue is under way. At a State House news conference yesterday, the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey and other groups argued for increasing the minimum wage to $7.50 an hour, with future adjustments tied to inflation.

The network released a report that said someone must earn $20.35 an hour to afford a "fair market rent" two-bedroom apartment, defined as one costing 40 percent of the state's median rent.

According to the report, in Mercer County the hourly salary must be $18.79, in Burlington County $18.50 and in Hunterdon or Middlesex counties $23.27.

"You can't live in New Jersey on Tennessee wages or Oklahoma wages or Arkansas wages but New Jersey's minimum wage is the same," said Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, which has lobbied for an increased minimum wage.

Jacqueline Livingston, a Trenton resident who recently moved from public housing into a home built with government subsidies to lower its cost, said a change is needed.

"You have to give people hope to have, not even the American dream, (but) just even (to be able) to pay rent," Livingston said.

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association has warned its members of a possible minimum wage increase and association president Philip Kirschner said he opposed increasing the minimum wage to $7.50. He refused to disclose if his group would oppose a smaller increase, explaining he wanted to first hear what is proposed.

"You're talking about a 50 percent increase in wages without any corresponding increase at all in sales orders and revenue for business," Kirschner said of increasing the minimum wage to $7.50, which would make it the highest in the nation.

He said such an increase would force companies to fire people or reduce hours for low-paid workers.

"I think the unintended consequence is to hurt the very people they seek to help," Kirschner said. "In the real world, something has to give when costs increase 50 percent."

The Housing and Community Development Network also highlighted its support for an Assembly bill that would increase rental assistance under a new state program to $25 million from the $10 million already earmarked.

The Senate approved a version of the bill 37-0 on Dec. 13.

The Assembly version is sponsored by Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, D-West New York, and Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-Ewing, chairwoman of the appropriations committee. Advocates said that kind of support is encouraging.

Tom Hester Jr. is the State House bureau chief.

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