By. Joan Quigley
Enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property; and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.
Those are just a few things guaranteed by the New Jersey State Constitution of 1947, along with religious freedom, civil rights, freedom of speech and the press, trial by jury, free assembly, and open elections.
And soon the right to an annual pay increase may be guaranteed as well.
Voters must approve any change to the Constitution, so you can express your opinion about this in the voting booth when you cast your ballot for gubernatorial and legislative candidates on Nov. 5.
Few people don’t think it would be a good idea to raise the minimum wage for workers at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but Gov. Chris Christie is one who doesn’t. He vetoed a bill that would enact a one-time increase last year. However, believing the public demanded an increase, Democrats crafted a constitutional amendment, which won’t require the chief executive’s signature.
The proposal is to enshrine a jump of the minimum wage to at least $8.25 an hour in 2014 and to require annual adjustments for inflation. If the cost of living decreases at any time, the minimum wage would remain the same, but if the cost of living increases, an upward adjustment would be made each year. If ever the federal minimum wage goes above New Jersey’s, there would be an automatic elevation to comply with the federal requirement.
Last year, the governor apparently was swayed by arguments of the business community, especially small employers who feared that a hefty hike in wages given to the lowest-paid workers would require a raise of equal size for people on the next few rungs up. They said the cost of doing business would rise unbearably and they’d have to compensate by raising prices or cutting staff. They pointed out New Jersey would have the third highest minimum wage in the country, higher than nearby New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Proponents of the wage increase pointed out that in 2006 and 2009, when our state raised the minimum wage, those other states quickly followed suit and layoffs didn’t happen to any great extent. Prices went up, but it was impossible to pinpoint a single cause.
Democrats heeded the pleas of underpaid workers who cried that no one can live today on $7.25 an hour, much less support a family. And since many of the lowest-level jobs are part-time and offer no benefits, they often have to depend on food stamps and other public subsidies to keep housed, clothed and fed.
So, just like we’ve seen in Washington, neither side would budge. The Democrats warned the governor that if he vetoed the one-time-raise legislation, they’d go for the permanent solution. He dared them to go ahead. And they did.
Now it is up to you.
You may agree workers deserve a higher minimum wage and that it always should keep pace with inflation. Or you could feel now is a bad time to increase any costs. Or you may feel that although an increase is justified, the issue isn’t one that calls for a constitutional amendment because constitutions by their very nature are noble documents that aren’t added to or deleted from very often and can’t be changed quickly or easily even when circumstances change.
So this is a serious decision to be made. Do think seriously about it and don’t forget to take action on the Public Questions column when you vote next Tuesday.