Hugh McQuaid Photo
Sen. Cathy Osten (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The Senate voted Thursday to approve a proposal to raise the state minimum wage by 75 cents to $9 per hour over the next two years.

Lawmakers passed the bill in a 21-15 vote after around two and a half hours of debate, sending it to the House. Both House Speaker Brendan Sharkey and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have indicated they support the proposal.

Sen. Cathy Osten, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Labor Committee, said that inflation and the cost of living in Connecticut have grown faster than the state’s mandated minimum wage, which has been at $8.25 per hour since it was last raised in 2010.

Osten, whose family once owned and operated a small restaurant in Norwich, compared the increase in the price of English muffins over the years to growth in the minimum wage. She argued that while the cost of food has increased faster than the rate of inflation, the minimum wage has lagged behind.

“I say, if inflation’s good enough for an English muffin, isn’t it good enough for a human being?” she said.

Osten said Connecticut has 106,000 residents who are paid the minimum wage. They comprise 10 percent of the state’s workforce.

Sen. Joseph Markley, the Labor Committee’s ranking Republican, said he opposed raising the minimum wage on philosophical grounds but based his opposition from the Senate floor on what he called a “more practical” argument.

“Is this the moment to consider an increase in the minimum wage? I hope we all realize what a desperate situation we stand in here in the state of Connecticut,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Sen. Joe Markley (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Markley pointed to the state’s high unemployment rate, which stands at 8 percent, and a state budget deficit that he described as “hanging over” the heads of lawmakers even as they debated. He said the economy in Connecticut did not seem to be recovering fully from the economic downturn.

Last year, many Democrats in the Senate had similar concerns. Despite heavy lobbying by then-House Speaker Chris Donovan, the Senate did not raise a House bill, which would have raised the wage by 50 cents over two years.

Although Senate President Donald Williams maintained that he never had enough votes to pass the increase, the issue created tension between the two legislative leaders. As a result, Donovan held the Senate’s signature bill last session, a proposal expanding a number of legislative jobs initiatives. And while the jobs bill later passed in a special session, the minimum wage hike did not.

Opponents of a minimum wage hike maintain that economic conditions have not improved enough over the past year to warrant raising it.

Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney said that in his tenure in the Senate, his support of raising the minimum wage has been dependent upon the state’s economic condition when the debate took place. In recent years, he said he has opposed an increase.

McKinney said even the governor was concerned last year about the message that raising the wage would send to businesses in the state. He said he did not understand why some lawmakers who opposed the increase last year now supported the proposal, when the economic recovery has been hindered by tax increases.

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Sen. John McKinney (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“Did I miss something? If people believe we are doing better now than we were a year ago, that’s more dangerous to the people of Connecticut than an . . . increase in the minimum wage because we’re not. It’s terrible out there,” he said.

This year’s bill has been bolstered by public support from the governor, who stayed on the sidelines through last year’s debate over the minimum wage.

“I’ve spoken with some of the business community and believe that we can get to $9 an hour over the next two years, an increase that will make it just a little easier for working people in our state without adversely impacting the business community,” Malloy said in April. “The fact is, this is just good public policy.”

Manchester Sen. Steve Cassano was one of the Democrats who opposed the minimum wage increase last year over concerns about the economy. Speaking from the floor Thursday night, he said economic concerns can’t always trump the welfare of the people working in low-wage jobs.

“I’ve worked hard to create jobs since I’ve been here and I feel good about that, but we can’t do that at the expense of people at the bottom of the economic ladder, Cassano said.

Osten, speaking to reporters after the passage of the bill, said she thinks the state’s economy has begun to turn around

“I think it’s starting to rebound. I think this helps out. I always think that an increase in the minimum wage gets money directly into the economy because people that make the minimum wage spend their money,” she said.

The bill passed in a largely party-line vote with only Sen. Joan Hartley breaking ranks with her fellow Democrats to oppose the bill.