By Heather Haddon
New Jersey voters will answer a question Tuesday that could affect workers and employers for years to come: Is an increase in the minimum wage important enough to enshrine in the state's constitution?
A ballot question will ask voters whether the state should raise its minimum wage by a dollar to $8.25 an hour and allow annual increases tied to inflation.
An estimated 49,000 workers earn the minimum wage in New Jersey, about 3% of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Three state polls have shown that New Jersey likely voters overwhelmingly support increasing the minimum wage, even across party lines.
No matter how voters decide, the ballot question is relatively rare in the state's politics: In comparison to states where ballot questions are common, most public-policy questions in New Jersey are addressed through the legislative process.
"It's unique," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, about the ballot question. "The Legislature is supposed to deal with all the nitty-gritty of governance."
If the increase is approved, New Jersey would be the fifth state to add a minimum-wage increase to its constitution, and the first to do so since the recession. The measures in Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio were passed in 2004 or 2006.
Tuesday's election, which also features Gov. Chris Christie facing Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono in the contest for governor, has seen a record amount of outside spending, with the minimum-wage question adding to that total.
Those for and against the measure have spent more than $2.3 million, the third-highest amount shelled out on any ballot question in New Jersey history, according to state figures adjusted for inflation.
Labor organizations have backed the increase, while business groups have opposed it, saying they can't afford wage increases year after year.
"We're doing the best we can to get them to vote no," said Walt Sodie, a spokesman for Coalition to Preserve Jobs and Our Constitution, an association of business groups.
New Jersey is one of 32 states that has a minimum wage set at the federal hourly rate of $7.25 according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have higher rates.
New York is among four states with rates set to increase in 2014, initially rising to $8 an hour. Connecticut's minimum wage is $8.25.
New Jersey last had a minimum-wage increase in 2005.
Last year, the Democratically controlled Legislature passed a minimum-wage bill largely on partisan lines. Mr. Christie issued a conditional veto in January, proposing instead that a $1 increase be phased in over three years and striking the automatic annual increases.
The Legislature voted to place the issue on the ballot this November. Backers argue that an increase for the state's poorest workers would flow back to the state through increased consumer purchases.
"Those are dollars that are going to go right back into the economy. They pay for bread, they pay for rent, they pay for car insurance," said Democratic state Sen. Joseph Vitale, during a rally for the increase in Perth Amboy, N.J., Thursday.
Opponents say the increase would cause businesses to cut tens of thousands of jobs. Putting the measure into the constitution would lock in the automatic increases unless it is repealed through a subsequent ballot question.
"I have good years and I have bad years," said Joe Olivo, who owns a printing plant in Moorestown, N.J. "I can't afford to give wage increases every year."
Working Families United for New Jersey, an advocacy group coordinating the campaign to vote in favor of the question, bought $200,000 worth of ads on New Jersey cable television and put up 47 billboards, a spokesman said.
The group has held about a dozen rallies across the state, with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Frank Pallone, state Sen. President Steve Sweeney and other Democrats in attendance.
Opponents have placed ads on television and radio stations, sent out mailers to about 500,000 residents and distributed more than 1,000 lawn signs, according to the campaign.
The issue has trickled into the governor's race. Ms. Buono has repeatedly attacked Mr. Christie for his veto of the minimum-wage bill, and she released an online ad last week profiling a woman living on the minimum wage.
Mr. Christie says the increase will hurt businesses. "I'm for a minimum-wage increase, but one that's done responsibly and phased in over time," Mr. Christie said during the second gubernatorial debate.