Dems vote with GOP to delay minimum wage hike in Northern Mariana Islands

The legislation, S. 256, was brought up under a suspension of the rules, a process reserved for non-controversial bills, and passed in a unanimous 415-0 vote.

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While Democratic support for the bill seems counter-intuitive, members of both parties were in easy agreement that poor economic conditions in the CNMI necessitate a slower increase in the minimum wage.

Under current law, the CNMI is required to increase its minimum wage until it is the same as the U.S. rate, $7.25 an hour. The law requires parity by 2016, which requires a 50 cent-per hour increase this year and in 2015.

Under the bill passed by the House and Senate, the CNMI could delay those planned increases and reach the $7.25 per hour rate in 2018. Language slowing the minimum wage increases was proposed by a Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and the Democratic Senate easily passed the bill in early August, by unanimous consent.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) noted today that the CNMI itself has requested a delay. "The territory has asked for a deferral on this because it's economy cannot currently sustain the minimum wage increases that are current law at this time," he said.

Del. Gregoria Sablan (D-CNMI), the territory's non-voting member of the House, acknowledged that rapid increases in the minimum wage back at home could threaten economic growth. Many conservatives argue that increasing the minimum wage can lead to reduced jobs and poor economic growth.

Sablan was not that explicit, but he did note that the islands have seen negative growth while the rate has rapidly increased.

"The wage has risen 82 percent since 2007, 16 and a half percent each year," Sablan said on the House floor. "The Government Accountability Office has reported uncertainty over how this rapid change affects the local economy, especially given the negative GDP in most of these years."

Report language on the bill from the Senate said delaying the minimum wage increases would help "mitigate the impact of a rapid increase on the CNMI economy."

The legislation also gives the CNMI rights to submerged land off its coast in the western Pacific Ocean, the same rights other U.S. territories have.

Members passed two other suspension bills on Tuesday, including S. 304, the Natchez Trace Parkway Land Conveyance Act. This bill conveys 67 acres of land to a park in Mississippi, and members approved it 419-1.

Additionally, the House passed S. 459, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Boundary Modification Act, in a 414-5 vote. This bill would allow an inter-agency transfer of 30 acres of land to increase the boundaries of a South Dakota historic site, to accommodate a visitor facility and a parking lot.