A controversial bill to raise the minimum wage, and possibly raise it every year, was approved by the state Senate following two hours of impassioned, partisan debate Thursday in Trenton.

Under the bill, the minimum wage would increase from $7.25 to $8.50 in March, and include annual cost-of-living increases.

“We’re arguing about raising the quality of life for the working poor in this state,” said Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester, a primary sponsor of the bill.

The bill passed 23 to 16 and now heads to the Assembly, which passed a similar bill earlier this year, but due to slight changes, is voting on the matter again Monday.

“Unfortunately time and again, this has become a partisan, no-compromise position,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, R-Union, said of the bill.

While Democrats characterized their support of the wage increase as a philosophical break with Republicans, their counterparts criticized the unwillingness of Democratic leaders to compromise on issues brought up with the bill and its timing — coming just as shore businesses struggle to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

“There is no way at this moment in time we are doing the right thing by raising costs on these folks that have lost everything,” Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, said, adding she would have supported the bill had the hurricane not struck. “It’s not a lack of an appreciation for the policy issue, but this is absolutely the wrong moment for the state of New Jersey to be undertaking this.”

Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, argued the working poor also were affected by the storm and need help.

“We did have a hurricane and we have a fragile economy, but the hurricane hit everyone,” he said.

Other Democrats bristled at connecting the wage issue to Sandy.

“Let’s be honest — we philosophically disagree,” Sweeney said. “Let’s not hide behind the storm because that is tragic (and) this bill was opposed by many prior to that.”

Republicans attempted to amend the bill, such as seeking to phase the wage hike over three years and giving more flexibility on cost of living increases, but Democrats tabled the proposal.

New Jersey last raised the minimum wage in 2005, and should the bill take effect — allowing future wage hikes to be tied to the Consumer Price Index — the Legislature will never have to vote to raise it again, Democrats said.

Several business owners oppose the measure, saying the 17 percent increase would lead to additional costs that would require them to curb job growth.

“It’s very business unfriendly, with catastrophic timing,” said Denise Beckson, the director of human resources for Morey’s Piers, a Cape May County amusement park that hired 1,500 seasonal workers this year.

The company will have to revise its plans for next season, including reducing services or shortening hours or its operating calendar, she said. Most of its workers are high school and college students who are younger than 20 years old or are teachers looking to supplement their income, rather than the working poor, Beckson said.

“It’s not someone who is trying to live off minimum wage,” she said

Democrats argued the pay increase may benefit the economy because minimum wage workers will use the money to buy products and services.

“They’re not putting it in the bank,” Sweeney said. “Every single dollar is going right into the economy.”

Gov. Chris Christie has said he is open to raising the minimum wage, but opposes tying the rate to the Consumer Price Index.

The Senate also passed a separate bill that would allow the wage increase through a proposed constitutional amendment. Any proposed amendments would be put to voters, circumventing the governor’s veto should he issue it.

The wage increase has popular support, particularly among those who make at or near minimum wage.

“The minimum wage definitely should be raised,” said Nicole Smith, 21, an Egg Harbor Township resident who makes $9 an hour as a shift supervisor at a fast food chain restaurant. “I have crew members who work their butts off and make minimum wage.”

But Smith, a single mother of two, also said if the shop doesn’t make enough money to cover staff salaries, workers’ hours must be cut.

“If business isn’t good, we might not have the hours,” she said.

Art Herz, 52, of Egg Harbor Township, a cook for the restaurant, said while his pay wouldn’t directly benefit from the minimum wage increase, he would expect to get a bump as well.

“I should make a little more too,” he said.

Contact Hoa Nguyen:

609-272-7203