HARTFORD — Marquis Smith of New Haven takes home less than $300 a week from his minimum wage job at a mall gift shop.
The 26-year-old Iraq War veteran is single and doesn't have kids, "but even with that being the case,'' he said, "it's still difficult for me to make ends meet."
Democratic lawmakers want to offer workers like Smith some help: On Tuesday, they proposed an increase in the state's minimum wage, from the current $8.25 an hour to $9 an hour on July 1, and to $9.75 an hour in July 2013. Also part of the proposal: linking the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index to help low-wage workers' salaries keep pace with inflation.
The $9 figure proposed to take effect July 1 would give Connecticut the second-highest minimum wage in the nation. Washington state's minimum wage, currently at $9.04, is adjusted for inflation annually, using the Consumer Price Index for urban wage earners and clerical workers for the prior year, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
"We have to do our best as a society, as members of the General Assembly, to say we understand that you're working hard and we want to make sure you get enough wages so you are not poor. ... That's what Connecticut does,'' said House Speaker Chris Donovan, the measure's chief proponent. Donovan, who is running for Congress, spoke at a press conference at the state Capitol complex Tuesday, flanked by labor leaders and other Democratic legislators.
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, an economist by training, said increasing the minimum wage actually works to stimulate the economy because low-wage workers spend their salaries.
But critics say the proposal could topple a fragile economic recovery, hurt small businesses and fuel the perception that Connecticut is unfriendly to business, a perception that some business leaders say was heightened last year when lawmakers passed the first state law mandating that firms with 50 or more workers provide paid sick leave.
"It's a bad idea with good intentions,'' said Andrew Markowski, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents 350,000 businesses across the nation, including several thousand in Connecticut. "The last thing small businesses need in this economy is government telling them to pay higher wages."
Gov.Dannel P. Malloysaid he supports a better minimum wage, in concept, but refrained from signing on to this specific proposal.
"While he certainly supports the ideals behind this legislation, we must be mindful of the needs of businesses, especially given the current economic climate,'' said Andrew Doba, Malloy's spokesman. "In the last six months, the governor has signed legislation enacting both a historic state-based Earned Income Tax Credit and Paid Sick Leave — two proposals that will provide a tremendous lift for working families."
Malloy said he will be watching the debate closely. "I'm not slamming any doors,'' he said during a conference call with Connecticut reporters from Washington, where he spent Tuesday giving a speech and attending a fundraiser, among other events. "I'm not saying no but I'll watch the debate and perhaps reach a conclusion subsequently."
House Republican Leader Lawrence Cafero said he's had many conversations with Donovan about the minimum wage. "We both agree about the importance of a minimum wage," Cafero said. "I think where we disagree is the timing. ... There is an appropriate time and place ... to talk about raising the minimum wage. This is the absolute worst time to do that."
However, Cafero said he was open to the idea of linking the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index. "There's a fairness about that. ... If people are doing better and the costs are going up, the wages should go up,'' he said.
Ten states, including Colorado, Arizona, Missouri, Florida and Vermont, adjust their minimum wage annually to keep pace with the cost of living, as measured by the index. A similar proposal is pending in New York state as well.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in another neighboring state, Massachusetts, are considering raising the minimum wage there to $9.50 in 2013 and $10 in 2014.
Donovan noted that someone working full-time earning the minimum wage only makes about $17,160 annually — which is about $5,000 beneath the poverty line in Connecticut.
The liberal Democrat with close ties to organized labor invoked a conservative icon during the press conference. "I don't usually quote Ronald Reagan,'' Donovan said, "but he once said the best welfare program is a productive job.''