Raleigh North Carolina's minimum wage is poised to rise to $6.15 an hour after the General Assembly gave final approval to a $1-per-hour increase Monday and Gov. Mike Easley said he was ready to sign it.

The Senate voted 37-12 for a $1-per-hour increase in the minimum wage to $6.15, a year after the idea appeared dead, thanks to support from pro-business legislators and high poll numbers.

An increase in the minimum wage, which has been at $5.15 since 1997, starting in January should put more in the wallets of nearly 140,000 workers who currently receive less than $6.15 per hour. The current minimum wage earns a worker $10,712 annually, or about $2,500 below the federal poverty level for a family of two. Increasing the minimum wage would give the worker another $173 per month, which still wouldn't exceed that poverty threshold.

"It's just a small increase that we're asking for," said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, which was part of a coalition this year pushing for the wage. "You shouldn't be in poverty while you work."

But small business advocates, who largely have been the sole voices in opposition to raising the minimum wage in recent months, said the increase will lead to shorter hours or layoffs, particularly in rural areas.

"The minimum wage throws a curve ball at the small businesses of our state," Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, who owns a development company with nearly 700 workers. He said he doesn't pay anyone below $6.15 per hour but doesn't support a mandated minimum wage: "I don't believe that's the role of the government, to interfere in the private economy and the free market."

The House defeated a $1-per-hour increase in June 2005, but House leaders revived it when they combined an 85-cent increase combined with a small business health insurance tax credit. The current bill doesn't contain the credit.

Polls also showed that up to 80 percent of North Carolina voters wanted an increase, which helped raise support among legislative leaders and pro-business Democrats during an election year.

More than 20 states currently have minimum wages that are higher than the federal rate of $5.15 per hour, but none of them border North Carolina.

The Rev. William Barber, with the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the $1-per-hour increase a first step toward a living wage for North Carolina's low-income workers; he also backs indexing the wage. At least four states already adjust their rates annually based on inflation.

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