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Steinberg opposed as legislature OK's plan to hike state minimum wage

Published 6:18 am, Thursday, March 27, 2014
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Democratic majorities in both the state Senate and House on Wednesday pushed through legislation that would raise Connecticut's current $8.70 hourly minimum wage in three increments, topping out at $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2017.

The bill, which passed the Senate 21-14 and the House 87-54, was immediately sent to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who announced that he would sign it Thursday in New Britain. Connecticut would become the first state to follow President Barack Obama's call to raise pay for the nation's lowest-paid workers to more than $10.

Debate on the bill began in the Senate just after noon, prompting the 14-member Republican minority to offer six amendments attempting to derail the legislation over its details, including provisions for restaurant tips, lower-paid teens, tying pay hikes to the consumer price index and cutting the rise in half.

House Republicans called two amendments, one of which failed in a voice vote and the second was buried 89-52. Other GOP amendments were uncalled in anticipation of rejection.

"You cannot ignore the fact that there will be people who will lose their jobs," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who is seeking his party's gubernatorial nomination. "We have an economy that is not doing well. We have too many people looking for work."

The bill passed the Senate after a 3 1/2-hour debate with Sen. Joan V. Hartley, D-Waterbury, the lone Democrat voting with Republicans. The House debate lasted two hours, with four Democrats voting against the wage increase, including Rep. James Maroney of Milford and Rep. Jonathan Steinberg of Westport.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the state already has the third-highest minimum wage in the nation, with the latest increase occurring Jan. 1.

"If you didn't think it wasn't enough last year, why didn't you raise it last year?" Cafero asked.

On Jan. 1, the $8.25 minimum wage in Connecticut rose to $8.70. The bill would increase it to $9.15 next Jan. 1, $9.60 a year later and to $10.10 on the first day of 2017.

Cafero warned that higher wages would likely mean fewer jobs as employers try to stay in business.

"We are a state of smaller business owners and they are struggling right now," Cafero said. "What bothers me the most is the way we've discussed this issue. Every time it's discussed, it's as if we're casting employers with a broad brush -- that they're money-sucking people who don't give a damn about their employees. But the mere fact that they may have to lay someone off rips their hearts out. We lost 10,000 jobs last month."

"I subscribe to the belief that something is better than nothing, and having a job, even at the current wage, is better than not having a job," said Sen. Kevin C. Kelly, R-Stratford. "Looking at the unemployment rate here in Connecticut, it is not the time to raise the minimum wage." The state's unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in January, while the national rate was 6.6 percent. As many as 90,000 workers in Connecticut are paid the current minimum of $8.70, which over 52 weeks of full-time work amounts to a poverty-level wage of $18,096.

Kelly warned that in Bridgeport, with 12 percent unemployment, about 50 percent among teens, the higher wages would mean even fewer job opportunities.

"Unless you're working in a small business, no one can really express how bad the economy is," said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, warning that restaurant owners would have to decide whether to raise the price of a hamburger or lay off an employee if the higher wages take effect.

"We have observed a severe erosion of jobs and our business climate," Boucher said.

"This is absolutely devastating for anyone in the restaurant business," said L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich. He offered another amendment, which also failed, to exempt from the higher pay rates those who work 15 hours or less per week.

"I come from the business world, and I know how business minds think," said Frantz, a private banker who said his amendment would mean more work for students and teenagers.

Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Labor and Public Employees Committee and chief proponent of the bill, attacked every GOP proposal.

Democrats hold a 22-14 majority in the state Senate and a 98-53 edge in the House. Republicans said wages for the state's lowest paid have risen by more than 25 percent over the last five years.

Debate in the House began about 4:45 p.m.

"On first blush, this is a bill that you would want to vote for," said Rep. Richard A. Smith, R-New Fairfield, ranking member of the Labor Committee. "But when we take a deeper look at the results and impact of this bill on the state of Connecticut and the employees of the state of Connecticut, you'll see something that's much more detrimental." He noted opposition of the state's food service industry.

"It will cost jobs and create higher prices," Smith said. "This will cost millions, if not billions, in lost revenue and a loss of jobs in the state of Connecticut. When you dig deep, it's a drastic measure."

"It's one-and-a-half percent of those willing to work who are working at minimum wage," said Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown. "The benefit is really going to be to no one. In the end, jobs are going to be lost, and that breaks my heart. The risks are significantly greater than the prospective gains." He called for lower taxes.