Senate postpones vote on minimum wage hike

DOVER — The Delaware Senate on Tuesday tabled a bill to hike the state’s minimum wage, an effort the legislation’s main sponsor said was needed to gain time to attract the necessary 11 votes to pass the legislation.

The bill would raise the minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.25 over four years.

On Tuesday after 90 minutes of back-and-forth debate and testimony, the bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, requested it be tabled.

“There were some indications that I may have 10 votes and I want to confer with my colleagues between now and (Wednesday) afternoon and hopefully secure at least 11 votes,” he said afterward.

He said he was hoping Sen. Catherine Cloutier, R-Arden, would sign on, but she appeared to be against the proposal.

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Gerald Hocker

Among the Democratic caucus, Sen. Brian Bushweller, of Dover, said he was not sure how he would vote and seemed to leaning toward “no.”

However, Republicans were strongly opposed to the bill. They sought to sway Democrats by bringing business owners and representatives to the chamber.

Six people testified against the bill, which would increase the wage floor in 50-cent increments on June 1 of each year from 2017 to 2020. Thereafter, the increases would be tied to the federal Cost of Living Adjustment.

An amendment hiking the minimum wage to $15.05 by 2023 was withdrawn by Sen. Marshall, who said it did not have enough support to pass.

Supporters claim the increase will help minimum wage earners escape poverty, but others objected by saying the hikes would result in a loss of jobs, higher prices and businesses leaving the state.

“Basically, in four years we will cease to operate,” said Ray Vincent, of Vincent Farms.

Backers of the bill argue many minimum wage earners are adults who are actually trying to support themselves or a household, a notion disputed by Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View.

Lawmakers also expressed concern that companies would pass the added financial burden on to customers.

“If you think businesses are going to eat this increase, you’ve got another thing coming,” Sen. Hocker said.

Sen. Marshall said afterward he had his mind set on the amounts and the phase-in period but would consider removing the Cost of Living Adjustment portion.

Business organizations have mobilized against the proposed increase, saying a 25-percent bump in the wage floor would paint Delaware as an unfriendly state to companies and could bankrupt many small-business owners.

Even those businesses that survived would have to lay off employees, leaving some citizens better off and others in a much worse state, opponents said.

But several lawmakers questioned that. Sen. Marshall said Maryland, California and Connecticut have not seen “significant” decreases in jobs since raising their minimum wage.

Eighteen states have minimum wage levels higher than Delaware’s current rate. Massachusetts and Vermont are the only states that are phasing in rates higher than $10.25, although Washington, D.C., is also doing so.

“If you never raise minimum wage, you’ll drop into abject poverty even though they work full time,” said Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington.

He said the state just saw the two best years for job growth for Delawareans in its history. However, Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharply, noted Delaware’s gross state product has failed to advance in the same way.

A minimum wage increase, according to opponents, would particularly hurt farmers who have little control over the going price for their goods.

“Businesses make decisions whether you want them to or not,” Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said. “And if you make it more expensive for them to hire people, they won’t.

“If you make it more expensive for them to locate to Delaware than to do business somewhere else, they won’t. The market functions whether we want it to or not.”

The debate was contentious at times, particularly when Sen. Bonini introduced an amendment to title the bill “the Delaware Job Killing Act of 2016.” The amendment was shot down, and Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, criticized Sen. Bonini for “theatrics.”

Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, has not taken a public stance on the bill.

“The governor was proud to sign the recent increase in the minimum wage and supports continuing to work to ensure the minimum wage is at an appropriate level,” said spokeswoman Courtney McGregor.

“He looks forward to conversations with Sen. Marshall and others to review the full impact of the bill. Whatever the outcome, it’s important to recognize the other issues that must be addressed to best support and improve access to the middle class.”

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