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Bill to raise California minimum wage advances in state legislature

By Jennifer Chaussee

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - Legislation to raise the minimum wage in California squeezed through the Democrat-controlled state Senate on Thursday, potentially adding to existing wage increases set to begin this summer.

The bill now heads to the state Assembly, where Democrats also have the majority, but its chances for passage are uncertain. If the Assembly approves the measure, it would then go to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature. Brown's office does not comment on pending legislation

"Why should it be legal to pay an employee a poverty wage?" said state Senator Mark Leno, a Democrat whose district encompasses San Francisco. The city's the minimum wage, $10.74 an hour, is the highest in the state, enacted largely to enable workers to keep up with the city’s skyrocketing cost of living.

Just last year, California passed a law to increase its minimum wage to $9.00 an hour this summer from $8.00 an hour, with a bump to $10 an hour in 2016.

The latest measure, authored by Leno, would set the minimum wage at $11.00 an hour starting in 2015 and bump it to $13.00 an hour by 2017. It would also require the minimum wage to be re-assessed annually according to inflation rates starting in 2018.

The notion of continued increases in the minimum wage polarized Senate Republicans and Democrats in a lengthy and heated floor debate.

Senate Democrats argued that businesses have a responsibility to pay employees enough to live independent of government assistance programs, while Republicans contended that increases wages would drive away business and give low-wage workers a false sense of empowerment by causing prices to rise.  

"This bill is a glass ceiling of false hope," said Republican Senator Joel Anderson. "They think they're gaining buying power ... but the prices all rise because we know labor is a cost driver."

According to an analysis of the bill, California's government employs about 4,500 minimum wage workers, most of whom are students and seasonal workers.

Raising the wages for those employees would cost the state tens of millions of dollars over the next three years, with continued costs thereafter depending on inflation rates.

(Reporting Jennifer Chaussee; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Orlofsky)

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