By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- Democratic candidate for governor Martha Coakley, the state's attorney general, used a speech to business leaders Thursday to call for an immediate increase in the minimum wage, focusing her remarks on income inequality in Massachusetts that she said negatively impacts other facets of society.

Coakley, who addressed the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, said her parents were an example of a generation that believed that if they worked hard they could build a life and give their children the opportunity to succeed.

"Unfortunately for many parents and kids today, the hope of building that better life seems distant, and very hazy," Coakley said. "For too many families, they're not focused on climbing the ladder, because they're worried about falling through the floor."

The issue of income inequality has jumped to the forefront for Democrats running across the country, most recently helping to propel New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to victory last November as he talked about taxing the rich to pay for early education. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has carved out a national profile by talking about the importance of rebuilding the middle class.

It wasn't the first time Coakley has vocalized her support for raising the minimum wage, and she is not alone among contenders in the Democratic primary who also support a minimum wage hike.


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An increase in the state's $8 wage floor appears likely this year given support for it among Beacon Hill Democrats and the possibility that a $10.50 per hour minimum wage proposal may appear as an initiative petition on the 2014 ballot. Within the Legislature and especially the House, lawmakers also hope to tackle business concerns with the unemployment insurance system as part of the minimum wage debate. Senate President Therese Murray has also expressed interest in passing legislation to change the system that pays for benefits to the unemployed.

Coakley said she believed the issue should be separated from still percolating ideas to reform the unemployment insurance system.

"We should not treat the minimum wage like a piece on a legislative chess board. We should stop using it as leverage in another debate, I believe, because for people trying to survive, it's not a game," Coakley said.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he wants to couple an unspecified hike in the minimum wage with reforms to the unemployment insurance system to balance the hit to businesses, who the speaker says that state is counting on to continue hiring. Gov. Deval Patrick has also expressed support for looking at the minimum wage and the unemployment insurance system "in tandem," as he put it Thursday afternoon.

Coakley, however, said she supports the standalone Senate bill to raise the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $11 over three years. After the speech, she said, "I'm opposed to linking it. I think we should move this forward. I don't think they're connected. I have been a champion for trying to reduce competitive barriers for companies and businesses. I'll continue to do that. If there are issues we need to look at, including that, we can do that, but I don't think they should be linked."

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President Paul Guzzi said the chamber has been working with legislative leaders on the minimum wage and unemployment insurance reform issues "with the idea of creating more jobs."

"It's not an issue we are not sensitive too," Guzzi said.

Coakley said Massachusetts ranks fourth in the nation for income inequality, and while those at the top income brackets have seen their salaries grow more than 100 percent, those in the lower end of the scale have little to no growth in wages. She said families cannot continue to afford rising housing costs on $17,000 a year.

"That inequality robs people of hope, for themselves and their children, and deprives too many of the opportunity to build a better life. The continued inequality does not just hurt those at the bottom - it threatens the very fabric of who we are as a Commonwealth. It hurts our economy as the middle class disappears before our eyes," Coakley said. 

She also said she has yet to hear a compelling argument from business leaders about why the minimum wage should not be raised. Many business groups have said raising wages without reducing the overall cost of doing business in Massachusetts will stall hiring, but Coakley suggested many of those arguments are reflexive and fail to take into account that higher wages means more disposable income being spent in the economy.

"With no due respect, I haven't heard a good response," Coakley said. "I'm happy to hear good arguments why we can't but I think we should do it and I think we should do it yesterday."

The attorney general is one of five Democrats running to succeed Gov. Deval Patrick in this year's gubernatorial election. Treasurer Steven Grossman, who on Thursday picked up the endorsement of Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg, and others have been vocal about their support for raising the minimum wage.

New polling out this week showed Coakley to be the front-running Democrat and only candidate in the race who would be able to defeat Republican Charlie Baker if the election were held today.

Coakley offered up praise for the governor's leadership through difficult economic times early in his tenure and his focus on investing in education, innovation and infrastructure that she credited with leading to the beginnings of an economic recovery.

By reducing income inequality, Coakley said, the state will improve its chances to succeed in other areas, such as improving the education system. She listed education and workforce development for the new innovation economy as her top two investment priorities.

Repeating her calls for universal pre-kindergarten and a restructuring of the school day and year to better prepare students for college and the workforce, Coakley said the state can do better to utilize its vocational technical high schools and community colleges to equip young adults with the skills they will need for the jobs available in a new economy.

She said the fact that just 600 Massachusetts high schoolers last year took the advanced placement exam in computer science shows how the state needs to improve its instruction. "That's too low," she said.

Asked about whether the state should be focused on rehabilitating or expanding its transportation network, Coakley said she supports investing in both and would work as governor to identify priorities. Though she said she supports extending commuter rail to the South Coast, she danced around the issue of paying for large transportation investments.

"I don't pretend to have a magic answer to that," she said.

It wasn't all serious from Coakley. She joked about playing a "critical role" in Boston Mayor Marty Walsh's election by losing to him in his first race for state representative when she finished fourth, and even poked fun of New Jersey Mayor Chris Christie, whose administration has been under fire for intentionally creating a traffic jam as political punishment for the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee.

"I think the good news is that unlike in New Jersey the governor of Massachusetts will never be blamed for creating traffic jams. We do that very well on our own, thank you," Coakley said.