Minimum wage bill is a top priority, but still not ready, say Dems

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

You could be forgiven for thinking that the state Legislature had already passed a minimum wage law. They’ve been demonstrating and rallying and extolling the virtues of a $15 minimum wage to working class people and to the state’s economy. But, the reality is that the bill is still being worked on.

“We are in the process of putting together a draft,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. “We worked on it a bit over the summer, and we’re going to make that a priority to get something in place this fall.”

Gov. Phil Murphy agreed, saying, “We sat, [Coughlin] and Steve and I sat a couple of weeks ago and I think this is one of the top two priorities that the three of us collectively want to get done in the next couple of months.”

The “Steve” the governor referred to is Senate President Steve Sweeney, who’s been saying he supports a $15 minimum wage with exceptions for agricultural workers and teenagers. Sweeney was said to be at his day job Thursday and unable to attend the press gathering. “He’s here in spirit,” said Murphy. Sweeney also supports a longer phase-in, which is one of the issues being debated inside the caucus.

“We need to take a look at everything,” added Coughlin. “There are, as you know, differing views from all sorts of phases of the economy and segments of the population. We’re going to try to put together a bill that we know will pass, that will achieve what it is that we want to get to, which is $15 an hour. How we get there, that path is still being developed.”

The progressive coalition, including organized labor and others, has been outwardly supportive of the process, although sources say – privately – they’ve been complaining about how long the process is taking and expressing concerns about the phase in time and promoting a so-called clean 15, meaning a new minimum wage for everyone.

“I’ve stood for a – with one notable exception – I’ve been in the clean $15 category,” said Murphy. The notable exception is for the business community. We’ve have to be careful about the sticker shock. You can’t make that leap overnight, so this has to be phased in over a series of years.”

The state’s business community seems resigned to the inevitability of a minimum wage hike. A statement from Michele Siekerka, President and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, urged a more conservative approach.

“… as we heard in today’s press conference, the pathway must be a gradual phased-in one affording our job creators predictability and the ability to keep up with the continuing rising costs of running their business.”

Senate Minority leader Tom Kean, Jr. said discussion of a minimum wage should be accompanied by pension and benefit reform for state workers. But the GOP is on the sidelines here, as Democrats control both houses and the executive branch. After a contentious budget process, Democrats are looking for something they can work on together, hoping that the relatively short distance between their stances on the minimum wage can produce a bill they can all shake hands over, eventually.