The House approved an increase in the state’s minimum wage, raising it 20 cents next year and another 20 cents in 2004.

The current minimum wage is $6.70. Under the bill, it would rise to $6.90 in 2003 and to $7.10 in 2004.

The vote was 98-47, with most of the votes going along party lines. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Democrats in the House supported an increase, which they said would help low-wage workers no longer receiving welfare benefits.

“It’s the right thing to do — we’ve got to help those we’ve kicked off and said ‘find a job”‘ said Rep. Ernest Newton, D-Bridgeport.

Most Republicans opposed the measure. They said it would drive businesses out of state because neighboring states have lower minimum wages.

The minimum wage is $5.15 an hour in New Hampshire and New York, $5.75 in Maine, $6.15 in Rhode Island, $6.25 in Vermont and $6.75 in Massachusetts.

“This is a slippery slide that puts us way out of whack,” said Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton.

Opponents also argued that the current economic downturn was the wrong time to increase minimum wages for financially strapped businesses.

In response, Newton pointed out that the legislature is considering giving raises to judges.

“It’s all right to do it on the high end but we won’t do it on the low end,” he said.

–Associated Press