By Richard Weizel
MILFORD, Conn., March 26 (Reuters) - Connecticut's senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, the highest statewide rate in the nation, following a call to action last month by Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy.
The bill passed by a vote of 23-13, mostly along party lines with Democrats approving the move and Republicans opposing it. It now awaits a vote by the state's lower house, also controlled by Democrats.
Malloy's push comes at a time when Democratic politicians across the United States are raising concerns about the growing gap between the poorest and richest Americans. On a visit to Connecticut earlier this month, President Barack Obama urged Congress to raise the federal minimum to the same $10.10 level, which has not gotten backing in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.
"This sends a clear message to the working people in the state of Connecticut that the legislature understands the difficulty they have in doing basic things to live, and we are proud to lead the nation in moving the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour," said state Senator Gary Holder-Winfield, chairman of the legislature's Labor Committee.
Connecticut's minimum wage currently stands at $8.70 per hour, and the bill would phase in the hike to $10.10 over three years. The current highest state minimum wage in the United States is Washington's minimum of $9.32, above the $7.25 federal minimum.
Patrick O'Neil, a spokesman for the state's House Republican Caucus, has called the proposal "pure politics in an election year."
Malloy is up for re-election in November.
The Washington, D.C., city council late last year passed a measure raising its minimum wage to $11.50 per hour in 2016. Workers in Sonoma, California, have the highest entry pay rate, at $15.38 per hour.
Out of Connecticut's work force of 1.7 million people, economists estimate there are currently 70,000 to 90,000 workers who earn the minimum wage. Malloy's proposal means that an employee working 40 hours per week would earn $21,008 per year. Currently, the federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $23,850.
Neighboring New York and Rhode Island, as well as nearby New Jersey, also increased the minimum wage this year.
Advocates of raising the minimum wage argue that it stimulates the economy since low-income people spend a higher percentage of their income, while opponents contend that it could slow hiring at a time that the U.S. economy is still facing high unemployment. (Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)