By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
CAMBRIDGE -- With the state Senate on record in support of increasing the minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2016, a key House Democrat told party members over the weekend that he hopes Massachusetts will have the highest minimum wage in the country by the end of the year.
"I am the author on the House side, as we speak, of a minimum wage bill that I want to bring to the floor next month, and I hope for the end of this year to have the highest minimum wage in the United States of America, right here in Massachusetts," said Rep. Tom Conroy, a Wayland Democrat. "This is a concrete way that I'm trying to fight on behalf of all those folks who are struggling on the margins."
Conroy, who abandoned a brief U.S. Senate campaign in 2011 and is now running for state treasurer, is the House chairman of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development charged with developing minimum wage and unemployment insurance legislation. His comments came as business and labor groups turn their attention to the House, which has yet to roll out plans for tackling both issues.
The minimum wage in Massachusetts, a high-income and high cost of living state, has slipped below neighboring states like Connecticut and Vermont. Beacon Hill Democrats have been saying for months that low-wage workers need a higher wage floor but so far have been unable to agree on a proposal.
After his speech at a Democratic caucus outside Central Square, Conroy told the News Service the highest minimum wage in the country is $10 per hour. Asked if he was talking about setting the minimum wage higher than that, Conroy said, "Do the math."
Activists are pushing a ballot referendum that would increase the wage to $10.50 per hour by 2016, and in November the Senate advanced a bill that would increase the minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2016.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California has a $10 per-hour minimum wage set to take effect in 2016. Connecticut, Vermont, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and Washington D.C. have a higher minimum wage than the $8 per-hour Massachusetts wage.
Conroy is a co-sponsor of bills (H 1701/S 878) that raise the minimum wage to $11 per hour in 2015.
The last time the Legislature raised the minimum wage was August 2006, when it gradually increased the minimum payments to $8 per hour by 2008.
Amid a push on the state and federal level for a higher wage floor, advocates have said wages have failed to keep up with inflation while critics have said higher wages could lead to lower hiring or layoffs.
In January, Speaker Robert DeLeo said the House would increase the minimum wage, and reform the unemployment insurance system funded by employers.
Last week, the Senate passed a UI bill providing relief for the most stable employers and increased payments for employers with the most layoffs.
In a recent debate, four of the Democratic candidates for governor said the minimum wage should be $11 per hour, while candidate Juliette Kayyem said it should be above $10.20 per hour. Republican frontrunner Charlie Baker has backed a minimum wage increase with reforms included.
Before his announcement at a Cambridge youth center, Conroy declined to say what the bill would look like. "Not going to divulge exactly where we're heading just yet," Conroy said. Afterwards, he said he wasn't providing more details to other audiences.
After Gov. Deval Patrick's annual State of the Commonwealth address, Conroy deferred to DeLeo on whether to pair the wage and UI reforms, an idea opposed by some minimum wage hike supporters.
"That's something that's being discussed all throughout the House, and you've heard the speaker comment on that, and I think he's the guy who you should be asking about that," Conroy said.
On Saturday, he indicated they might be separate bills.
"There's going to be simultaneity," Conroy said. He said, "Both issues are going to be brought up in a similar timeframe."
Conroy said he has been studying the issues for nine months and plans to go over transcripts of the Senate debate and speak with his co-chairman on the committee, Sen. Dan Wolf, a Harwich Democrat.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced Sunday night that she would be in Boston Monday for a discussion about raising the minimum wage with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, Boloco founder John Pepper and Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman.