Should New Jersey increase its minimum wage?
That, folks, is not an easy question.
The experts certainly don't agree. There are respected economists, with studies and data to back up their positions, on both sides of the question.
The issue isn't whether the state's current minimum wage - set at the bare-minimum federal level of $7.25 an hour since 2009 - is enough. It isn't. Who can live on $15,000 a year? Imagine trying to support a family on that.
But the key question is whether raising the minimum wage in this difficult economic environment will do more harm than good. Some people would get paid more, but job cuts and other spending cutbacks by businesses forced to pay more for labor are also likely, and would further slow the economy - and hurt other people.
We do, however, know this.
The proposal by state Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would raise the current minimum wage to $8.25 - and tie it forever to the rate of inflation - is a bad idea.
One, enshrining the minimum wage and future increases in the New Jersey Constitution locks the state into something that would be very difficult to change. Such inflexibility is rarely a good approach to public policy issues. Circumstances change. Policymakers need to be free to respond to those changes.
Two, this is not what constitutions are for. A constitution creates a structural framework of how a government is to work. That's why the process to amend a constitution is designed to be cumbersome. A constitution is a place to lay out lasting principles regarding the make-up of government. It's not a place to enshrine a measure that even experts do not agree about and that may be a good idea one year and a bad idea the next year. Raising the minimum wage is a question of policy, not of the fundamental nature of New Jersey's government.
Sweeney goes so far as to say, "Our state constitution's overarching goal is to ensure a basic standard and quality of life for residents." Frankly, we're not so sure of that. It seems to be asking an awful lot of a constitution.
We understand where Sweeney, a longtime official in the ironworkers union, is coming from. He is a passionate advocate for labor. He considers raising the minimum wage in New Jersey a personal mission.
But writing it into the state constitution, tying the hands of future lawmakers, is not the right way to do it.