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Cuomo's push for $15 minimum wage questioned by fiscal watchdog

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be  pushing for a bill to raise the minimum wage for all workers to $15 an hour in the new legislative session, but some say it could backfire and result in fewer jobs.

Cuomo, speaking recently at an event with Vice President Joe Biden, quoted from his own father, former Gov.  Mario Cuomo’s famous "tale of two cities" speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, saying he wanted to continue his father’s cause of economic justice by making a $15 an hour universal minimum wage in New York a top priority.

“Because if fast food worker deserves $15 an hour, construction workers deserve $15 an hour,” Cuomo said to enthusiastic union members, where he also announced his executive action raising the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 an hour.

“Every working man and woman in the state of New York deserves $15 an hour as a minimum wage and we are not going to stop until we get it done,” the governor bellowed, to cheers.

Cuomo’s, speaking to reporters, says the plan would be phased in over several years, by 2018 in New York City and 2021 upstate, and to make it  easier for businesses to adjust and perhaps more palatable for Republicans in the legislature.

“So it goes up about a dollar a year,” the governor said.

New York would be the first state to increase the minimum wage to $15. So far, some large cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles, have begun phasing in a shift to that amount.

 

E.J. McMahon, with the fiscal think tank the Empire Center, says that’s a huge leap in a state that has wide variances in income between upstate and downstate.

“This is a very significant, pervasive extreme proposal,” McMahon said. “It goes far beyond anything anyone has ever seriously proposed before.”

The Empire Center released a study of the median wage in New York. While it is nearly $22 an hour in New York City, it is far less upstate. Areas like the Adirondacks, and the Utica and Binghamton areas, have median wages that are between $15 and $16 dollars an hour.

McMahon says the governor is proposing to elevate the minimum wage to the level of the median wage in many parts of the state, something he believes was not the intention of the original law, meant to regulate entry-level jobs.

While it’s not certain whether the governor would win passage of the legislation right away, McMahon says it will still have a “chilling” effect on businesses and the economy.

Fast food outlets have already begun using automation to reduce the number of workers, but McMahon says businesses like home health care agencies are less adaptable to that, and he predicts health care costs will rise if the bill becomes law.  

“You think nursing home care is expensive now,” he said.

Cuomo, along with supporters of raising the minimum wage, argue that it will do the opposite,  as the lowest paid workers have more cash to spend on food, clothing and other basic items.  

“We’ve raised the minimum wage a number of times,” Cuomo said. “It’s actually spurred the economy.”

Cuomo, who earlier this year called a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour a “non starter," now says he’ll spend 2016 convincing the legislature to enact it. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.