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Massachusetts moved closer to instituting the nation's highest minimum wage under a bill approved Wednesday by the state House of Representatives.
The measure, which won Senate approval last week, would raise the state's $8 per hour minimum wage in three increments to $11 per hour by 2017. A routine procedural vote is needed in the Senate before the bill is sent to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick for his expected signature.
Future increases in the minimum wage would not be automatically tied to inflation, as an earlier Senate version of the proposal would have done.
"This is a groundbreaking moment for Massachusetts," said state Rep. Thomas Conroy, D-Wayland, during Wednesday's debate.
He said many of the state's estimated 600,000 minimum wage employees live in poverty despite having full-time jobs, while others are forced to work multiple jobs to support their families.
"This will be a huge benefit to them to meet their daily needs and hopefully allow them to grab on to a ladder of opportunity," Conroy said.
The minimum wage would rise to $9 per hour on Jan. 1, 2015; to $10 on Jan. 1, 2016; and finally to $11 on Jan. 1, 2017.
The measure would also gradually raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, such as restaurant servers, from the current $2.63 per hour to $3.75 per hour, a 31 percent increase and the first since 1999, Conroy said.
Critics of the bill, which passed on a 124-24 vote, said it would hurt small businesses.
"It's too much, too fast, too soon," state House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, said of the 38 percent increase in the minimum wage.
Republicans had called on lawmakers to consider other ways to help low-income workers, such as boosting the state's earned income tax credit. Jones said if businesses were forced to cut jobs, it would hurt the very workers the bill was intended to help.
"If you're one of those employees who is currently making $8, and you're going to make $11 and not lose your job, (it) sounds like a good deal," he said. "But if you're making $8 and you might be one of those people who loses their job, it sounds like a lousy deal."
Passage of the measure could forestall a drive to put a question before voters calling for a $10.50 per hour minimum wage, indexed to inflation.
The group Raise up Massachusetts called the measure a "positive step," and said it would consider withdrawing its petition once the bill is signed by Patrick. Meanwhile, the group said, it has met a Wednesday deadline for submitting additional signatures to city and town clerks to earn a spot on the November ballot.