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Politics and Government

State minimum wage increase faces hurdles

New York State lawmakers are set to return to the Capitol Wednesday following a two-week break for the President’s Day holiday.  Lawmakers have plenty to work on in the next few weeks leading up to the start of the state’s fiscal year, including whether to pass a minimum wage hike as part of the state budget.

The talks on the state spending plan will occur amid developing tensions between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Republicans, and within the leadership of the state Senate itself.  The growing divide is crystallized in the debate over raising the state’s minimum wage.  

Cuomo initially included an increase from $7.25 an hour to $8.75 an hour as part of his budget proposal, which is supposed to be approved by March 31.  

The governor has the power to force the legislature to accept his spending plan, or face the option of shutting down the government, once the budget deadline is passed.  If the governor ties the minimum wage increase to his spending plan, it’s harder for Republicans in the Senate, who had expressed reservations in the past, to say no.

But then, President Barack Obama proposed a federal minimum wage increase to $9 an hour in the State of the Union speech on February 12. That gave New York's GOP Senators an out. A spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos said, “it may be best to wait and see what the federal government does before the state acts.”

Then Cuomo began to waver, saying he agrees that one uniform federal minimum wage rate would be better, but he says there’s no telling when Congress might act.

The governor admits the discussion has become more complicated. And he says while he is committed to raising the state’s minimum wage this session, he hinted that he might remove the proposal from his budget after all.  

“Whether it’s April or June, the plan is to get it done,” Cuomo said. The legislative session is scheduled to end in June.

Michael Kink, with the Strong Economy for All Coalition, says Cuomo shouldn’t wait. He says it’s been almost a decade since the last increase.

“We need a strong minimum wage in New York. We need it as soon as possible,” said Kink. “I don’t think there’s any reason not to do it in the budget.”

Numerically, there are enough votes in the state Senate to approve the minimum wage increase. Senate Democrats say they have 27 yes votes, and the five member break-away Independent Democratic Conference support the measure, bringing the total to 33, enough votes to pass the bill.  

But the Democrats are not fully in charge of the Senate. It’s currently led by the 31 Senate Republicans, one Democratic Senator who sits with them, and the five members of the Independent Democratic Conference.  Decisions are made jointly between the two factions on what legislation comes to the floor for a vote.

That disagreement could be a source of tension between the GOP and the leader of the Independent Democrats, Sen. Jeff Klein. Klein has made approving a minimum wage hike a major priority.

Klein met privately with labor leaders at his Bronx office on Monday to strategize about how best to proceed.  

Minimum wage increase advocate Kink says 80 percent of New Yorkers, and the majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the state, want the increase and it should be voted on in the Senate.  He calls the alliance between the Senate GOP and the IDC a “choke point” for legislation.

“The idea that the Republicans can stop anything progressive from coming to the floor, particularly when there are the votes to pass it, seems crazy,” Kink said. “I don’t think voters are going to put up with that for very long.”

Whether the minimum wage increase is eventually included or not, it’s in everyone’s interest -- Senate, Assembly and governor -- to finish the budget on time, or even early if they’d like to continue to get credit for a functioning government. The GOP and the Independent Democrats also want to demonstrate that the Senate leadership coalition is indeed working.