TRENTON -- In their first public appearance together, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy and his fellow Democrats who lead the New Jersey Legislature promised Monday to gradually hike the state's minimum wage to $15 over the next few years.
At the same time, Murphy told reporters he is still committed to raising taxes on wealthy residents to pay for his initiatives -- even though state Senate President Stephen Sweeney recently said the federal tax overhaul currently being considered in Congress might complicate the issue.
Appearing at his first Statehouse news conference since his Nov. 7 election, Murphy said he'll make good on his campaign vow to increase the state's minimum wage from just under $9 to $15.
But Murphy provided few other details as he stood alongside Sweeney, D-Gloucester; incoming state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex; and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st Dist.
"We have to do it responsibly, but we must get there," said Murphy, who will replace Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Jan. 16.
"This is as high on the priority list as anything we've got," Murphy added.
The Democratic-controlled state Legislature passed a bill last year to phase in a $15 hike over five years, but Christie vetoed it.
Once Murphy is sworn in, though, Democrats will lead both branches of government, making it more likely such a measure will become law.
Democrats have not yet drafted a new bill nor settled on how long the phase-in period will be. Murphy said he favors three to four years.
"At least we know we're moving forward instead of meeting the veto pen," Sweeney said.
Said Murphy: "Give us a chance to get our sleeves rolled up and get the specifics ironed out."
New Jersey's current minimum wage is $8.44 an hour and is due to increase to $8.60 on Jan. 1, thanks to a 2013 constitutional amendment that triggers increases tied to the rate of inflation.
That's higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, which has been in place since 2010. New Jersey is one of 29 states that have raised the state minimum wage on their own.
Opponents argue a hike would force small business to lay off workers, reduce hours, and raise prices.
Protect Jersey Jobs, a coalition of Garden State businesses, said Monday it would make the state "an even more expensive place to live for families and seniors on fixed incomes."
But proponents say an increase is especially necessary in New Jersey, where the cost of living is high.
"If you do the math, $15 is hardly heroic," Murphy said, arguing that a two-income household with two independents in the state is "barely at poverty level" under even after the hike.
Murphy added that those who benefit from the increase will spend that money, immediately putting it back into the economy.
Numerous labor union leaders and members who support the hike appeared with Murphy at the event.
Leslie Hall, a public school cafeteria worker in Trenton, said the increase would go a long way to helping her feed herself and her daughter. She said she makes $1,500 a month, but $500 goes to her mortgage and hundreds more go to bills.
"It's hard," Hall said.
Expect Republicans to fight an increase, though Democrats could likely pass it even if every GOP lawmaker voted no.
State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, said earlier this month that Republicans would support a hike in exchange for a cut to the state's income taxes. But Kean Jr. expressed dismay Monday that Democrats are not working with Republicans.
"It's not too late for New Jersey to set an example for the rest of the country of how reasonable Republicans and Democrats can work together to improve the lives of everyone they represent," he said in a statement.
As for Murphy's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy? Murphy says a so-called "millionaire's tax" would help pay for his plan to increase spending on education, transportation, and public-worker pensions by $1.3 billion. He also proposes cutting corporate tax loopholes and legalizing and taxing marijuana to come up with the money.
But Sweeney said last week that legislators may have to "re-evaluate" the millionaire's tax if Congress passes a Republican federal tax overhaul that would hurt New Jersey by curbing the deduction for state and local taxes.
Garden State taxpayers would see their taxes increase $137 million over the next decade if the overhaul becomes law, according to a report from the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy.
As he swiftly exited Monday's news conference, Murphy was asked if he still supports a millionaire's tax.
"The answer is: We've got to get Washington settled first," he said. "But the answer is yes."
Asked if that means he's reconsidering the tax, Murphy said: "At this moment, no."
Sweeney said Monday that Democratic lawmakers are all "in favor of advancing" a millionaire's tax, but repeated they "can't ignore" what's going on in D.C.
Without the millionaire's tax, Democrats would have to find funding elsewhere to increase spending.
"Now we've got to look at everything, because we need to fund our schools, too," Sweeney said. "We need to fund our pensions. We've got a lot of funding to do."
Brent Johnson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @johnsb01. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook....Read more