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A Constitutional Guarantee For A Minimum Wage

New Jersey’s minimum wage went to $7.25 per hour in 2009. But what should be shocking is not that it happened, but how it happened. It actually took the federal government to act when Trenton wouldn’t, as state government hadn’t acted to increase the minimum wage since 2005.

Let’s face it, we live in one of the nation’s most expensive states, with housing costs among the highest anywhere. It’s embarrassing enough that we have dragged our feet in ensuring a livable wage for those at the very bottom of the economic ladder, but even more so that we have left the minimum wage to the whims of politics.

It’s easy to dismiss the minimum wage as the domain of teenage burger-flippers, but it is not. There are families trying to scrape by on just $7.25 per hour. A 2011 analysis found that among the 307,000 workers who then earned between $6.52 and $8.50 and hour, only 20 percent were teenagers, nearly half worked full-time, and one-quarter were parents.

Imagine trying to feed a family, pay the rent, and keep gas in the car on less than $16,000 a year. Many families are struggling at incomes twice that. Inflation continually eats away at the buying power of $7.25 an hour.

I recently proposed asking the people of New Jersey to amend the state constitution to increase the minimum wage to $8.25 and tie it to the rate of inflation. Not only would this provide a much-needed increase now, but it would ensure the ability of families living on the bare edge of poverty to meet a rising cost of living. Most importantly, it would take politics and politicians out of the discussion.

Indexing the minimum wage to inflation and taking out of the hands of legislators and governors is something I had hoped to do in 2005, only to see it stripped from the final law. But consider this: If we had indexed the minimum wage from the start, it would today be $9.20 – nearly a dollar more than I am now proposing.

Already, those opposed to taking the minimum wage out of the political arena have begun to voice their opposition. Gov. Christie even called it “stupid and truly ridiculous.” The governor and I have worked together on several important initiatives, but on this fundamental issue, he is out of touch with the needs of working-class New Jersey.

The minimum wage shouldn’t be a matter of politics at all. Ensuring a basic standard of living shouldn’t be left in the hands of partisan Legislatures and governors to debate only when the minimum wage becomes impossible to meet the needs of the workers it is intended to help. This is a lesson that already has been learned in Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Ohio, each of which asked their residents to amend their state constitutions to guarantee a minimum wage that would keep pace with inflation. It passed each time.

It is easy to think of a constitution as just an operator’s manual for government, with the outlines for the power of the Legislature and governor. A constitution is much more. As it is stated in the beginning of the state constitution, it is written on the premise that “all political power is inherent in the people,” and that the government exists for their “protection, security, and benefit.”

We have amended the state constitution to legalize both bingo games and casino gambling, to allow seniors and veterans to enjoy a guarantee of property tax relief, and to dedicate and rededicate tax money for specific purposes. Each was put to the people with the basic idea that residents should have a direct hand in the ultimate direction of the state.

Just as our federal constitution is famously dedicated to “promote the general welfare,” our state constitution’s overarching goal is to ensure a basic standard and quality of life for residents. For the past sixty-five years, the people have amended it to ensure their own security. Amending it to guarantee a livable minimum wage is part and parcel of that tradition. The state constitution, after all, is about people, not process.