ASBURY PARK, N.J. — New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday to raise the minimum wage by $1, to $8.25 an hour, and add automatic cost-of-living increases each year.
The vote was a victory for Democrats in the state Legislature, who put Public Question 2 on the ballot to achieve through referendum what they were blocked from doing by Gov. Chris Christie. He vetoed a bill last year that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour with annual inflation adjustments.
The new minimum wage goes into effect Jan. 1. The cost-of-living adjustments will take place every Sept. 1. New Jersey won't have the highest minimum wage in the nation, though. Washington state has a $9.19 rate, and New York and Connecticut are phasing in $9-an-hour wages over the next two to three years.
The measure was passing 60 percent to 40 percent, according to late results.
Proponents were overjoyed by the vote.
"It was definitely time. It's not just about the dollar raise, it's about helping workers move toward economic security. As the cost of living goes up, the value of the wage goes up," said Mary Gatta of West Long Branch, a senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women in Washington, D.C.
The additional money also will give families a boost in spending power in New Jersey, said Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective in Trenton.
"You can't survive in New Jersey on $17,000 a year," MacInnes said.
Not everyone agreed.
"I think its disappointing," said Phil Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. "I think a lot of small businesses are going to decide whether they need to cut some shifts or hours from people or whether they need to let any employees go."
Bob Stewart, owner of the Carousel Arcade in Seaside Heights, said he will have to make cuts.
"I'm in a cash business. It's going to change my whole industry," he said.
Of the 1.8 million workers in New Jersey who are paid by the hour, an estimated 49,000 — nearly 3 percent — are paid the minimum wage, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Another 54,000 are paid less than the minimum wage, which exempts some occupations like waiters and waitresses.
New Jersey's minimum wage has been at the federal minimum since 2009.
The proposal resulted in an avalanche of special-interest spending, amplifying a long-running debate: Does a mandated wage hike help low-wage employees and spur economic activity or does it hurt business owners, taxpayers and even those workers it purports to benefit?
The idea was opposed by business organizations, in part due to the short-term economics but perhaps more significantly because it would lock the increases into the state constitution. They say businesses will raise prices, reduce hours or cut jobs to cope.
The Coalition to Preserve Jobs and Our Constitution, which includes the Chamber of Commerce and other groups, spent $956,000 opposing the proposal.
That was more than offset by $1.25 million in spending in support of the question — $686,000 by the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, $432,000 by Working Families United for New Jersey and $137,000 by NJ Workers' Voices.
Christie said raising the wage is "just an irresponsible thing to do." He has also called it "a truly ridiculous idea" to write the minimum-wage increases into the state constitution.
"The money doesn't come off a magic money tree. The money comes from the pockets and the hard work of the small-business owners," Christie said.