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Legislature Overrides Rell's Veto Of Minimum-Wage Increase

By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, MARK PAZNIOKAS And JON LENDER | Courant Staff Writers

June 24, 2008

With one vote to spare in each chamber, the state legislature voted Monday to override Gov. M. Jodi Rell's veto and guarantee a 35-cent increase next year in the state's hourly minimum wage.

The unusual override marked a significant political defeat for Rell: It's only the second time that the Democrat-controlled legislature has overturned the Republican governor in the nearly four years since Rell took office. It also marked the first override on a major policy issue.

Lawmakers tangled over the minimum wage, with Democrats calling the small raise a matter of fundamental fairness for the state's lowest-paid workers. Republicans countered that the increase would backfire in tough economic times, arguing that small businesses would be forced to postpone hiring and reduce the hours for workers in restaurants and retail stores.

The razor-thin margin offered some high drama in the House of Representatives as lawmakers rushed to return from vacation to ensure that they had the necessary two-thirds vote.

Rep. Felipe Reinoso, a Bridgeport Democrat, flew back from his native Peru where he lived for 19 years before moving to Connecticut and landed Sunday night at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. He paid $1,250 for his ticket, and he said he intends to fly back next Sunday for another month in his native land.

"I'm very happy that I came, and I voted," Reinoso said after the debate. "I had e-mails requesting my presence."

Rep. Peter Panaroni, a Branford Democrat, was stuck in traffic on I-84 and missed the vote.

"He's on 84 with his dump truck because he was working today," said Rep. Bruce "Zeke" Zalaski of Southington, who was tallying votes for the House Democrats. "We asked the Capitol police to be sure he was able to park."

But Panaroni's vote was not needed. The measure passed 102-39 in the House and 25-9 in the Senate. Under the rules, the House needed 101 votes and the Senate needed 24.

About 65,000 of the state's 1.7 million workers less than 4 percent of the workforce are paid the minimum wage.

Minutes after the Senate vote finalized the measure, Rell issued a statement calling the votes "a seriously short-sighted decision that even if well-intentioned will have long-lasting negative consequences for employers and employees alike all over Connecticut."

"An increase in the minimum wage will bring an increase in the costs of goods and services, the loss of jobs and unrecognized costs to employers in the form of higher Social Security, unemployment tax and workers' compensation payments," Rell said.

The law will now increase the wage from the current $7.65 an hour to $8 on Jan. 1, 2009, and to $8.25 in 2010.

The override passed in the House with 101 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Linda Marie "Penny" Bacchiochi of Somers.

Bacchiochi initially appeared to miss the vote, which followed a brief debate. She rushed to her desk before the tally was announced and asked to be counted in support.

In the final seconds before the electronic vote tally, Bacchiochi had hurried conversations with House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero and the Republicans' legislative chief of staff, George Gallo. She then rushed up the aisle to her desk, but was too late to push the green button and vote in favor of the override.

Bacchiochi then stood and asked to be recognized by House Speaker James Amann so that she could have her vote recorded in the affirmative. The speaker allowed her to vote, and the little green light lit up next to her name on the tally board as the 102nd vote.

"I work with people every day who actually earn minimum wage, so the argument that people who earn minimum wage aren't supporting themselves or a household is false," said Bacchiochi, owner of a property management firm in Stafford Springs.

"I manage low-income apartments. I see what people living on minimum wage have to do to survive. Knowing that, and seeing that, it makes it almost impossible for me to vote not to raise the minimum wage."

She said she had been contacted by Rell's staff in recent weeks, although not by Rell herself, and had been asked to reconsider her support for the bill. But she said no one pressured her.

In the rushed conversations before the voting closed, Bacchiochi said she sought to make sure that her Republican colleagues "understood this was not an affront to them or to the governor, but something that I felt personally was the right thing to do."

The Senate originally passed the bill 25-11, with Republican Sens. Sam S.F. Caligiuri of Waterbury and Anthony Guglielmo of Stafford and all 23 Democrats in favor.

Although the House had more than enough Democratic members to reach the required two-thirds vote, the override in the Senate required at least one Republican vote because Democrats hold a 23-13 majority, and a two-thirds majority is 24.

That meant the vote of either Caligiuri or Guglielmo would decide the issue. State GOP Chairman Christopher Healy noted that both Republicans are running unopposed in this fall's election.

Both Republican senators said in interviews after the vote that they had met personally with Rell last Friday, at her request, and that she had politely offered what she said was new information about how the economy had worsened since the regular legislative session, when they supported increasing the minimum wage. But both based their support for the override at least partly on contact with constituents in their largely working-class districts.

"We had a very respectful conversation," Caligiuri said of his meeting with Rell. "This is a good-faith disagreement about whether this is the right way to help low-wage earners. The governor and others firmly believe that in this economic climate, a minimum wage increase will do more harm than good.

"I've done my research. I've looked at the data," Caligiuri said. "I've talked to businesspeople, and I just have not been able to reach that conclusion. I am convinced that it will not do any harm to business, but that it will help people including many of my constituents."

Said Guglielmo: "I thought that when you have people who are working for minimum and they're paying over $4 a gallon for gas, and they're paying increased food prices, and they're paying increased fuel oil [prices], that this is a small tip of the hat toward them."

Guglielmo said Rell was "very gracious" Friday when she argued that "the situation has changed since we voted on it originally," but he said that "you could use that as an argument for why you should vote for [increasing the minimum wage] as well. ... It's also gotten worse for the people who are receiving minimum wage."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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