TRENTON - So much for the bipartisan lovefest brought on by Hurricane Sandy.
Democratic and Republican senators clashed Monday over a proposal to raise the state's minimum wage to $8.50 from $7.25 an hour and provide annual cost-of-living increases. The Budget Committee advanced the bill by a 7-6 vote, and the Senate is expected to deliver final approval next week.
Republicans beseeched Democrats, who rule both chambers in Trenton, to consider phasing in the raise to blunt labor costs to storm-damaged businesses. The bill as written would raise the wage rate March 1 and include cost-of-living increases beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
But Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Republicans weren't willing to meet his bottom line: providing for future automatic increases in the wage by tying it to the Consumer Price Index.
"There are very few things I'm not willing to compromise on," Sweeney said. "This is one of them."
Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver (D., Essex), who made raising the minimum wage a top issue in her chamber, made a similar statement at a news conference earlier Monday.
"I have had outreaches to me from Republican leadership who came to me and offered me 25 cents," said Oliver, who represents some of the poorer regions of North Jersey. "Twenty-five cents is an insult to the people I am speaking for."
GOP sources said they never offered a simple 25-cent increase. Rather, they wanted to phase in the proposed $1.25 increase over several years.
Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth), who has voted with the Democratic majority at times, said she would normally support the minimum wage hike. But not now, when people in her district are still "pulling the seaweed out of their front doors."
"There are business that were literally buried under 16 feet of water, six feet of sand," she said during the hearing. "This is the wrong moment. . . . I do believe that the current minimum wage is low, but I think we've had a tragic experience in our state which has put everyone back on their heels."
Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R., Morris) proposed amending the bill to increase the hourly rate to $8.50 over three years and drop the automatic increases.
Democrats quickly shot down the offer.
Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) said boosting the minimum wage would likely bump up pay for higher-wage workers as well. Many skilled workers who can help rebuild the Shore also live there, and this bill would ensure that they are paid fairly.
"This is the exact time we should be giving them a little more," Norcross said. "I think jumping on the back of this storm to keep those people down is disgraceful."
The committee voted along party lines with the exception of Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who voted against the measure because he worried it could cost jobs.
The Assembly passed the bill in May.
Gov. Christie has said he opposes automatic increases in the wage rate, but left the door open to a one-time increase.
Unless Christie signs the bill as is, Sweeney has said, he intends to move forward with his plan to put the matter to voters in November 2013, when Christie is up for reelection.
"We're just giving the governor the option of signing the increase into law," he said last week. "We're not asking his permission."
A majority in both chambers must pass a proposed constitutional amendment for two consecutive years to put it on the ballot.
Sweeney's constitutional amendment proposes to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 by 2014 and increase it according to the CPI each year thereafter.
A strong majority - 76 percent - of New Jerseyans favors increasing the minimum wage to $8.25 and including automatic increases, according to an Inquirer New Jersey Poll conducted in early October. The 604 likely voters were split, however, on whether the raise should be done via legislation or amendment.
Thirty-two states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, currently pay the federal minimum rate of $7.25 an hour. The remaining 18 states pay a higher wage, and 10 offer annual increases according to changes in cost of living. Four states have written those regular increases into their constitutions: Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Nevada.