Photo Gallery: U.S. Rep. Richard Neal visits the Rotary Club of Great Barrington

GREAT BARRINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal said on Wednesday that he's in favor of raising the minimum wage in Massachusetts, but believes it should be done in stages, not all at once.

"You can do it in different steps," the Springfield Democrat said after speaking before the Rotary Club of Great Barrington at Crissey Farm. He also spent Wednesday morning teaching a civics class at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Referring to the Republican Party, Neal said, "if there's so much opposition to the minimum wage, why don't we schedule a vote on it? The reason they don't schedule a vote on the other side is they know it will pass."

In Massachusetts, employers are planning to increase wages and salaries by an average of 2.96 percent this year to finally put pay raises above the levels that were in place before the Great Recession, according to a report by Associated Industries of Massachusetts that was released on Tuesday.

However, according to AIM, the unknown factor in employer's calculations is the possibility that the state Legislature will increase the state's $8 per hour minimum wage. Last year, the state Senate passed a bill that would increase the basic wage to $9 per hour this year, $10 per hour in 2015, $11 per hour in 2016, then index the increases in following years to inflation.

AIM believes the a $3 increase in the minimum wage will require employers to plan for dealing with wage compensation when inexperienced and new employees are brought up to the pay rates of experienced workers.

The National Federation of Independent Business has said that if Gov. Deval Patrick makes increasing the minimum wage in Massachusetts a "top priority" as President Barack Obama has, that would be a "mistake."

The NFIB believes the best way to create opportunities for the poor is to lower the barriers to small business investment and job creation.

Neal said there's no evidence that increasing the minimum wage in Massachusetts would hamper job growth.

"Let's tie it to the tax issues they care about," Neal said, referring to small businesses. "If it's on a gradual transitional basis then you can minimize the impact. But the evidence is clear that raising the minimum wage, which by the way hasn't been raised in a long time, there's an argument that it's a job killer. It's not.

"There's no evidence that they're going to be job reductions because those individuals tend to work in sectors where they're necessary," Neal said.

The economic disparity in America is one of the topics that Neal believes President Obama will tackle during the annual State of the Union address on Jan. 28. He also believes Obama will discuss budget deficits, a call for greater collegiality among legislators, trade promotion authority, guns and energy when he addresses the nation.

"Those are the big topics of the day," Neal said. "Whether you're left, right or center there has been greater income disparity. Look, we can argue why, there's a host of reasons, and it's more complicated than what it appears on face value. But not to miss the point, it's a very real issue for the American people. Income in America has not gone up in a long time."

The state's rollout last fall of an online filing system for those seeking unemployment benefits has created confusion among people who find themselves in that situation. Neal said those issues need to be resolved by the state Legislature, but that he would be in favor of a system in which paper reporting was combined with technology.

"Online services are kind of like bank statements," Neal said. "I've got my statement online, and I want paper. I just think it's too easy with technology to think that this is the panacea."

Neal touched on several topics during his remarks to the Rotarians, including the modern news media, the country's energy policy, how the Republican Party's sharp move to the right has eliminated all of its national representation from New England, and how changes to the federal tax code could help alleviate the country's economic disparity. He also believes that President Obama needs to be given "room" to negotiate nuclear disarmament deals with Iran.

The country's production of natural gas "is putting coal on the sidelines," Neal said, while domestic oil production is expected to surpass Saudi Arabia's in 2015.

"We are on the edge of energy independence," Neal said.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
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