John Adams once said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Thankfully for him, he did not live to see the current New Jersey state Legislature in action.
Many legislators have strong policy opinions based on their philosophical view of the world. When legislators hold so firmly to their views at the expense of searching where differing viewpoints may overlap, government becomes gridlocked, and the public suffers. When legislators actively engage in real discussions with the goal of finding common ground, government can produce meaningful results. The 2 percent property tax cap, tenure reform, and saving the public pension system all came about in the last four years because the Legislature worked in a bipartisan manner and found common ground.
The Legislature recently missed an opportunity to achieve something meaningful on the minimum wage. Instead of debating the facts and moving toward the common ground that was right in front of us, many legislators rigidly stuck to their viewpoint.
Initially, the Democratic majority proposed to raise the effective minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 an hour beginning this year and to peg future increases at the rate of inflation. Others in the Legislature, including me, saw merit in a reasonable increase in the minimum wage, but not so much so quickly given the current economic climate.
Gov. Chris Christie subsequently conditionally vetoed the bill, suggesting that the minimum wage increase by one dollar over the next three years, along with increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits lower-income families, by 25 percent.
So with everyone's position out in the open, the common ground was clearly visible and the factual debate defined: help lower-income families by raising the minimum wage. From that position, finalizing the details on how much over what period of time and whether to consider tax incentives should have been easy, if there were a sincere debate and a true desire to negotiate.
But no. Too many legislators ignored a chance at a compromise and instead chose to move even further away from the common ground by pushing through a constitutional amendment embodying their position on increasing the minimum wage.
If our goal is to help lower-income families, who too often tend to be minorities, then one would think certain information was worthy of further discussion. Take, for example, the research from the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research organization, which found that "a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage will decrease minority employment by 3.9 percent, with the majority of the burden falling on minority teenagers by 6.6 percent." Or even the information from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found there are long-term effects of teenagers being pushed from the job market due to higher minimum wages. Teenagers who do not gain work experience are more likely to work less and earn less when they reach their late 20s, coincidently at an age when people start families they need to support.
Furthermore, why not debate the comments made by the owner of the Steel Pier? As reported in The Press of Atlantic City, Anthony Catanoso frankly said "an increase in the minimum wage leaves the tourism industry no other choice but to cut jobs." Our tourism industry offers opportunities for teenagers to earn money and develop skills to get better-paying jobs. But the risk with sharply increasing the minimum wage in a tight economy is that minimum-wage jobs will be the first jobs to disappear.
Additionally, why not ask the people we are trying to help? Nora Colon, of Brigantine, currently works for $8 an hour, below the proposed minimum. However, after having the experience of being laid off, the single mother of two told The Press, "At least I have a job. I'm thankful for that."
So why the insistence on raising the minimum wage via the state constitution when it was entirely possible to reach a bipartisan agreement? Is it because the proposed constitutional amendment would have to go on the ballot in a year when the entire Legislature is up for election?
Only a fool believes he has all the answers. New and relevant information gives legislators a path to make better decisions. By pushing through a constitutional amendment, a majority in the Legislature not only cut off any current debate on the issue, but eliminated any debate in the future. Facts are obligated to be stubborn things, legislators are not.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, of Ventnor, is a Republican representing Atlantic County.