CONCORD — The House of Representatives voted Thursday to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, which would be the first increase in 13 years.
In an unusual move, the Democratic rank and file overruled their leadership by supporting $2 more per hour than the House’s policy committee recommended.
If signed into law, the minimum wage would rise in six incremental steps to reach $15 an hour by Jan. 1, 2025.
The extra $2 an hour was approved 189-177 in a key test vote, before a 212-155 vote sent the final bill (HB 731) on to the state Senate for its consideration.
“We are becoming a state that has been divided between those doing very well and those being left behind,” said Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, D-Hampton. “There are 173,000 people in the state who make less than $15 an hour. The fight for $15 is for economic justice.”
Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline, said the free market, not government mandates, should set wages.
“The amount of money someone makes should not be dictated by someone in here. It should be negotiated between an employer and their employee. If they want to pay them $17 an hour, great,” Flanagan said. “This bill has automatic increases that will make it even harder for businesses in New Hampshire.”
“I have said before minimum wage is for the people that have no skills and the employer is taking a chance on the employee,” he said, drawing an angry response from a few House members.
House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, banged his gavel to restore order and admonished one lawmaker who had yelled at Flanagan from his seat.
Gov. Chris Sununu has consistently opposed raising the minimum wage, vetoing a bill last year to raise it to $10 an hour immediately and to $12 an hour by Jan. 1, 2022.
Two Democrats running for governor in 2020, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes of Concord, support a higher minimum wage. The issue is likely to be a touchstone as Republican Sununu seeks a third term.
Minimum wages — the lowest hourly rate employers can legally pay non-tipped employees — can be set at the federal, state, or local level, and debates about raising or lowering them are often contentious because of different views about how it affects employment rates, tax revenues and economic growth.
New Hampshire is one of 21 states with a minimum wage tied to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In the five states with no minimum wage, the federal minimum applies.
On Jan. 1, 20 states, including Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and Connecticut, raised their minimum wage.
All the other New England states have much higher minimums than New Hampshire: $12.75 in Massachusetts, $12 in Maine, $10.96 in Vermont, $10.50 in Rhode Island and $11 in Connecticut.
This House-passed bill would raise the rate to $8.50 now, $10.60 next Jan. 1, $13.90 by Jan. 1, 2024 and $15 a year later.
“If you look at those making $15 an hour you are talking about personal care aides, DOT workers and other state employees,” said Rep. Kris Schultz, D-Concord, who authored the last amendment that passed. “Too many of them have to take second jobs, keeping them away from their families 60 hours a week.”
Schultz said this bill mirrors a federal proposal. Several advocates outside the chamber held signs that read, “Fight for $15.”
Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, has said action on the minimum wage is her top priority. She has authored bills to raise the minimum each of her seven years in the Senate.
The Senate Commerce Committee will next take public testimony Tuesday on Soucy’s latest bill — raising the minimum to $10 next Jan. 1 and $12 on Jan. 1, 2023.
While advocates said the House action was “bipartisan,” only two Republicans supported it, Reps. Robert Elliott and Betty Gay, both of Salem.
Meanwhile, eight House Democrats opposed the bill, including Reps. Erika Connors and Linda DiSilvestro, both D-Manchester, and several from the North County, including Reps. Ed Butler, D-Hart’s Location, Tom Buco, D-Conway, Henry Noel, D-Berlin, and Linda Massimilla, D-Littleton.
Rep. Jonathan Mackie, R-Meredith, said the average wage statewide is just under $26 an hour. Meanwhile New Hampshire has the fourth-highest median income and the lowest child poverty rate in the nation.
But Rep. Casey Conley, D-Dover, said the low unemployment rate and workforce shortage should have employers supporting higher minimums to attract more employees to come here.
“I ask why should New Hampshire workers get less for their labor than employees in surrounding states,” Conley said. “The reality is we can only control what we do in this chamber.”