TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- The New Jersey Legislature handed Gov. Chris Christie a bill Monday that raises the state's minimum wage to $8.50 per hour— a $50 per week raise for someone working 40 hours.
The measure bases automatic yearly adjustments on consumer price data.
The vote in the Assembly was 44 to 31 with one abstention. It followed previous party-line votes in both chambers of the Legislature. The Senate approved the bill last week, sending it back to the Assembly for a final technical vote to amend the start date to March 1. The Democrat-led Legislature also has put the issue on a parallel track that would ask voters to approve a minimum wage increase next year if Christie vetoes the legislation, which lawmakers expect.
"The Assembly and Senate wanted to be armed with a vehicle or tool if what the governor sends back to us is not acceptable to us," Speaker Sheila Oliver said after Monday's vote. She said the Assembly will take up the ballot question during its final voting session of the year on Dec. 17.
The Legislature must pass resolutions in consecutive years to get the question on the ballot next November. The only other way to get the question before voters is for it to pass by a three-fifths majority, which won't happen if all the Republicans vote in lock-step with the governor's wishes.
New Jersey is one of 23 states whose minimum wage is $7.25, the same as the federal minimum. An increase to $8.50 would put New Jersey third highest, behind only Washington state and Oregon.
Both Oliver and Senate President Steve Sweeney identified increasing the minimum wage as a priority for the year. But the bill stalled in the Senate, and the ballot question gained momentum, after Sweeney revealed that the governor told him privately he would not sign a bill with automatic annual adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index.
Christie has not said publicly what he'll do. The business community is urging him to veto the bill.
"New Jersey is one of a handful of states in the country in which the unemployment rate went up this year, and this bill guarantees an even slower recovery," said Laurie Ehlbeck, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Some Republicans in the Legislature said they aren't opposed to raising the minimum wage, but questioned the wisdom of doing so now when the economy is still struggling to recover and much of the state took a hit from Superstorm Sandy.
Oliver wasn't swayed. She said she and other Democrats have supported tax initiatives and other help for small businesses and now it's time to support the lowest wage earners who help make those small businesses viable.
"There are people in this state who come home from working 40 hours a week and have $290 at the end," she said. "I know, and many of my colleagues know, that is not enough to sustain yourself in this state."
Oliver and Sweeney are unwilling to abandon the bill's automatic adjustment provision, which they say typically increases the minimum wage more gradually, and some years not at all.