- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The state House of Representatives approved raising the minimum wage on Tuesday after a discussion about a bill amendment turned into a heated debate about race.

The House voted 58-13 to raise the state’s $9 hourly minimum to $9.60 on Jan. 1.

Deputy Minority Leader Patricia Morgan proposed allowing employers to continue paying $9 an hour to people ages 20 or younger with high school diplomas or GEDs. The Coventry Republican said employers may not hire these workers, who don’t have the skills they need, if their wages were higher. She cited youth unemployment rates, including among minority groups.

Rep. Raymond Hull, Rep. Joseph Almeida and others strongly objected to creating an unequal class of workers.

“Do not separate us,” said Almeida, a Providence Democrat.

Morgan said she felt as though she were in “an alternative universe” because her amendment wasn’t based on race. She said she introduced it because it’s difficult for teenagers to get their first jobs.

“Don’t you dare call me a racist because I am not,” she said.

Her microphone was briefly turned off as she, Almeida and Hull argued their points.

Majority Leader John DeSimone, a Providence Democrat, told his colleagues just before the vote that “We’re in America, and we learned many, many years ago that separate is never equal.”

The amendment failed.

Lawmakers were considering raising the hourly minimum by $1.10 to $10.10 per hour beginning on Jan. 1. Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo supports that increase.

But organizations representing small businesses, the hospitality and food industries, home health care and hospice agencies and others said they couldn’t afford it. Leaders of both chambers agreed to amend the proposals to $9.60 per hour.

The Senate will consider the raise on Wednesday. If enacted, this would be the fourth year in a row Rhode Island raises the minimum wage.

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