(Recasts with signing, adds quote)
By Elizabeth Barber
BOSTON, June 26 (Reuters) - Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on Thursday signed into law a measure raising the minimum wage to the highest of any U.S. state, $11 per hour, by 2017.
The move comes as U.S. Democrats nationally are trying to make the minimum wage a key issue ahead of midterm congressional elections in November, framing the effort as a quest of conscience on behalf of the millions of Americans living on wages that have not kept up with rising costs of living.
"Raising the minimum wage brings a little relief to the working poor, many of whom do jobs we could not live without and who recycle money right back into the economy," Patrick said in a statement announcing the signing.
The law will raise the state's minimum wage in stages from its current level of $8 per hour and follows similar moves by neighboring Connecticut and Vermont.
The first minimum wage increase in Massachusetts since 2008 is expected to benefit some 500,000 workers statewide, said state Representative Thomas Conroy, who is a Democrat like Patrick.
"A lot of these folks are really struggling on the margins and they deserve a raise," Conroy said. "It's one small step toward addressing an income inequality issue that I think so many Americans are finding really frustrating."
The law does not include provisions to tie minimum wage increases after 2017 to inflation, which Patrick had sought.
Some Republican state legislators had backed an increase to $9.50 over three years, saying that a more modest raise would put less of a burden on the state's businesses.
"We realize the impact that raising the wage is going to have on the business community," said Gina McLaughlin, policy analyst for state Representative Brad Jones, who voted against the bill.
President Barack Obama's effort to raise the U.S. minimum wage to $10.10 per hour failed to win support in either the Republican-controlled House of Representatives or the Democratic-controlled Senate, with opponents saying an increase would cost jobs.
In the absence of federal action, states have gone ahead with their own legislation to raise entry-level wages. Vermont will raise its minimum to $10.50 per hour by 2018, with Connecticut, Hawaii and Maryland all moving toward a $10.10 minimum.
The District of Columbia earlier this year adopted an $11.50 minimum, to take effect in 2016, and Seattle's city council voted this month to raise its minimum to $15 an hour over the next seven years. (Editing by Scott Malone, Richard Valdmanis, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)