A Senate bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 failed on a split vote, but the House bill passed the Labor and Public Employees Committee by a slim one vote margin after an hour of debate.
The bill pitted Democrats on the committee against Republicans and it was the first test of the shrinking Democratic majority in the General Assembly.
Democrats who support an increase in the minimum wage argued that it will help the economy because it will put more money in the pockets of consumers.
“If wages continue to be depressed in Connecticut, it further reduces the income tax and our sales tax,” Rep. Ed Vargas, D-Hartford said.
He said big box retailers like Wal-Mart are not going to leave the state and he believes automation of certain jobs would happen regardless of the minimum wage.
Republicans argued that a minimum wage increase would fall on all employers, not just Wal-Mart.
“I look at it as a learning wage. A place for people to begin their careers,” Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, said.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said that 70 percent of those earning the minimum wage are supporting a family. They are working two, three and sometimes four jobs just to make ends meet, she added.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said lawmakers have to come to the reality that “our economy is a disaster.”
He proposed and then withdrew an amendment to get rid of the gradual increase to $15 an hour and instead proposed immediately indexing the current minimum wage of $10.10 an hour to the Consumer Price Index.
Meanwhile, Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Milford, said everyone knows that even $15 an hour isn’t a living wage. He said increasing the minimum wage is not how they get people out of poverty.
“It was never meant to be a living wage,” Smith said. “This is not the answer. It never was intended to be an answer.”
He said Democrats are just fooling themselves into believing they’re helping people.
Both side of the issue were passionate in their attempts to defeat or win support for the legislation.
But it also marked the first time a legislative committee has had to deal with the new reality of what an evenly split Senate means going forward.
It means that most controversial legislation this year will be making its way through the House because the Senate has the ability to split the committee vote on a Senate bill. That means Senate Republicans could kill more legislation at the committee level, if they see Democrats don’t have the votes.
While there are many concepts making their way through the process as both House and Senate bills, the House bill has a better chance of survival.
“Obviously we have the votes both at the committee level and on the floor,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said. “We’re going to pick those votes very carefully, but when they’re issues of importance to this state I think we’re prepared to move forward with them.”
Aresimowicz visited the Labor and Public Employees Committee to witness the vote on the bill.
“Today, we learned that the detached and divided public spirit of President Donald Trump is alive and well right here in Connecticut, the Connecticut Senate Republicans’ first official act under our new, bipartisan power-sharing agreement was to turn their backs on some of the hardest working and most needy people of Connecticut by dividing the Labor and Public Employees Committee to block the Senate version of the minimum wage bill,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said following the vote.
Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said Connecticut politicians are too focused on the minimum wage as an answer.
“My goal is to create an environment where all of our hard working citizens have the chance to earn a real middle class income, not just the bare-minimum,” Miner said. “We can only do that by making Connecticut a friendlier place to do business. Raising the minimum wage again will not do that.”
Earlier in the day, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took a neutral stance on the minimum wage Tuesday. He said he’s been supportive of minimum wage increases in the past and will watch the legislation as it winds its way through the legislative process.
“Perhaps through this process we’ll understand what the best way is to go,” Malloy said.
Malloy said he believes there should be regular adjustments to the minimum wage without a vote. He hinted that he’d be in favor of tying it to inflation.
That said “no one should live in poverty who is working 35 to 40 hours per week,” Malloy added.
Meanwhile, the labor community packed the Legislative Office Building Tuesday to show lawmakers they’re not interested in giving up their collective bargaining rights or changing the prevailing wage.
The prevailing wage refers to the rate of pay that must be paid to construction workers on public works projects.
Under current law, the prevailing wage applies to public construction projects for renovations over $100,000 and new construction over $400,000. The proposed legislation would increase the threshold at which the prevailing wage would apply to $500,000 on renovations (a 400 percent increase) and $1,000,000 on new construction (a 150 percent increase).
Lori Pelletier, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, was baffled that legislators were pushing the initiative.
“Sometimes I just don’t what’s wrong with this building,” Pelletier said, referring to decisions made by elected officials.
The proposed legislation does have its backers, however,
“Although we are hopeful that lawmakers will refrain from adopting a budget that shifts costs onto the backs of local property taxpayers, it is clear that the state must begin to get serious about providing towns with meaningful relief from unfunded state mandates,” Pat Llodra, First Selectman of Newtown and Secretary of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), said.
Municipalities have long supported changes to the prevailing wage.
“Adjusting the prevailing wage thresholds, which is long overdue, will help stretch local capital budgets further and encourage investment in local infrastructure and local jobs,” Llodra added.
Malloy pitched it as part of his budget in order to make up for some of the other pain he caused municipalities by requiring them to pick up $400 million in contributions to the Teachers Retirement System.
Jack Kramer contributed to this report.