New Jersey Senate Passes $15 Minimum Wage, Setting Up Clash With Christie

Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey set the stage on Thursday for another showdown with Gov. Chris Christie over the state’s minimum wage.

The State Senate in Trenton passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to more than $15 an hour by 2021. That would amount to an increase of 80 percent over four years from the state’s current minimum wage of $8.38 an hour.

If Mr. Christie, a Republican, signs the bill, which has already passed the State Assembly, New Jersey would join New York and California as the only states scheduled to raise their minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. Some cities outside those states, including Seattle and Washington, have adopted plans to reach $15 minimums. (The national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.)

Mr. Christie did not comment on the Senate’s passage on Thursday, but he has made his position clear in the past. He spoke in April of “the reckless effort to raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour” and said it could have a “devastating impact” on the state’s economy.

Democratic leaders have indicated that they would respond to a veto by seeking a public referendum next year on raising the wage to $15. That effort would be a replay of what they accomplished in 2013, when they circumvented Mr. Christie’s veto of a more modest increase in the minimum wage.

In November 2013, voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the State Constitution that raised the minimum wage to $8.25 in 2014 and allowed for annual increases based on the rate of inflation. But that plan backfired in a way this year when the official measure of inflation was negative, leaving the minimum wage at $8.38 for a second year.

In the meantime, the movement known as the Fight for 15 gained momentum. Several cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, adopted plans to raise their minimums to $15 an hour, and California and New York followed suit.

Those moves left New Jersey as one of the country’s most expensive places to live that had not accepted a $15 minimum. A 2015 study by the United Way of Northern New Jersey found that the average household income for a single adult was $27,552. That sum equates to almost $14 an hour.

The National Employment Law Project estimates that an increase to $15 would result in raises for about one-fourth of all workers in New Jersey. It would also increase the share of workers in the country covered by a $15 minimum wage to more than one in five, said Paul K. Sonn, program director of the employment law project, which advocates for low-wage workers.

“The $15 minimum wage is roaring across America and delivering the first big raises for workers at the bottom in decades,” Mr. Sonn said in an interview. “Governor Christie will have a chance to show which side he is on, the side of the struggling middle class or the side of low-paying corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart.”

Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat and president of the State Senate, said he expected that “the governor will more than likely flat-out veto” the bill, which passed 21 to 18. If that happens, Mr. Sweeney said, the Democrats plan to pass legislation calling for a question on the statewide ballot in November 2017, when Mr. Sweeney could be running to succeed Mr. Christie.

Mr. Sweeney said he believed that there was broad public support for a $15 minimum and that the measure would easily be approved. He admitted that he had sponsored the 2013 amendment and that “we just didn’t get it right.”

Mr. Sweeney said that the last increase in the minimum wage did not hurt the state’s economy as some business leaders and Republican officials had predicted. But, he added, “We thought it was going to work out better than it did.” Still, he said, the state had gained 91,000 jobs since then.

“The reality is where they’ve done this, the economy has actually gotten better,” Mr. Sweeney said. “This gives people an opportunity to have more buying power.”

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