PENNINGTON, N.J. - Gov. Christie on Tuesday vetoed legislation that would have nearly doubled New Jersey's minimum wage to $15 an hour in five years, calling the proposal a "radical increase" that would hurt businesses and consumers.
Speaking in the produce aisle of a family-owned grocery store in Mercer County, Christie accused the Democratic-controlled Legislature of pandering "to folks who are uninformed because they neither receive the minimum wage nor pay it."
"This type of heavy hand of government, saying that we know better than the people who actually run these businesses, is the reason why in past administrations New Jersey has gotten less and less affordable," Christie said, standing in front of a stand of 69-cent bananas and various organic foods.
Democratic leaders, who had anticipated Christie's veto, said they would introduce a constitutional amendment to circumvent the governor and put the issue to voters in 2017. If it is approved, New Jersey would join California and New York as states that are phasing in a jump to $15, an issue that has energized the Democratic Party's base.
Cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington have adopted similar measures. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order in 2014 requiring city contractors and the companies they subcontract with to pay a minimum of $12 an hour for city work.
Hillary Clinton, the party's presidential nominee, has said she supports a $12 federal minimum wage, up from $7.25, but would favor $15 in certain parts of the country.
Under New Jersey Democrats' plan, the wage would first increase to $10.10 an hour, from the current $8.38, and gradually to $15.10 by 2021. It could increase further thereafter because it would be tied to the cost of living.
To put the question on the ballot, each house of the Legislature would have to pass the amendment with a majority vote in consecutive sessions. Alternatively, they could pass the measure once with a three-fifths majority vote.
In 2013, the Legislature passed, and voters approved, a constitutional amendment that boosted the wage floor by $1 to $8.25 an hour and tied it to inflation going forward.
Democrats who supported that measure now say it didn't go far enough to help the working poor.
"Today's minimum wage does nothing short of tear families apart, forcing them to work multiple jobs just to live hand-to-mouth, while relying on government assistance to make ends meet," Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said in a statement. "Meanwhile, the wealth continues to trickle up, not down."
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) added that Christie's veto was "all the harder to stomach" because he announced it "in front of the very types of employees that desperately need this economic lifeline."
Christie supported a modest wage increase in 2013 - when he was up for reelection - but opposed Democratic legislation linking it to inflation. On Tuesday, he urged small-business owners gathered at the grocery store, Pennington Quality Market, to fight the amendment "publicly, loudly, aggressively."
"The bottom line is that business owners facing added expenses from this bill in the form of increased payrolls, taxes and supply costs, will be confronted with four options, none of them good: lay off workers or cut back their hours; raise prices; leave New Jersey; or close altogether," Christie wrote in his veto message.
That claim is difficult to evaluate, particularly given that so few cities and states have adopted a $15 wage floor.
"At the very least, the lack of academic studies of the $15 minimum wage means there's uncertainty about what would happen with an increase that big," the fact-checking site PolitiFact reported in May.
Mike Rothwell said his family had owned Pennington Quality Market, the store where Christie spoke, since 1981.
Rothwell said that of his 160 employees, most of whom work part time, about 15 percent, or 24, earn minimum wage. A few dozen others start at that scale but are eligible for raises, he said.
He said he was "committed to providing our employees with competitive wages and generous affordable benefit packages." But given food stores' slim profit margins, Rothwell said, a "dramatic" wage hike would force him to cut hours, reduce staff, and raise prices.
Brian Russo, a 37-year-old employee who works three jobs, said he opposed Christie's veto. "Today these kids can't afford anything out of college," Russo said, adding that he didn't think the wage mandate would affect him.
Greg, a customer who gave only his first name, said he supported a phased-in raise but didn't like the Democrats' tactics. "To me, amending the constitution seems radical," he said.