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Politics and Government

NY Legislature faces divisive issues in a political year

Jenna Flanagan
Innovation Trail/WMHT
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie walks on a bridge across the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie.

The state’s  legislative leaders crossed paths literally this week, when both scheduled a stroll at the same time along a walkway over the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie. In addition to taking in the view, they had a lot to say about priority issues, including raising the minimum wage and funding public transit and road and bridge repairs.   

Raising the minimum wage is likely to be a top issue in the next legislative session, if not sooner. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he’ll push for a bill to raise the rate to $15 an hour over the next few years. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says he’s on board. In fact, he says, Assembly Democrats actually proposed the increase before Cuomo did, early in 2015.

“We’ve been pushing for $15 minimum wage since the early onset of session and discussion in the budget,” Heastie said. “And we’ll see where it goes.”

At the time, the governor said raising the minimum wage to $15 was politically unrealistic, but he has since convened a wage board to raise fast food workers’ pay to that amount over the next several years.

Heastie, a Bronx native who started his job in February after the former speaker was arrested on corruption charges, is continuing an ongoing tour of upstate areas. He visited the walkway over the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, along an old railway bridge, which he called a beautiful sight.

Coincidentally, Senate Leader John Flanagan, was also on the walkway enjoying the views and meeting with local Republican officials. Flanagan, a Long Islander, began his tenure in May, after the former Senate leader was also arrested for corruption.

The senate leader wants to hold hearings on the minimum wage before making any commitments.

“We have major concerns,” said Flanagan, who said he wants “full public input.”

“There’s a lot of components of this that will make a significant difference in every community across the state of New York,” he said.

GOP senators have been opposed to the idea in the past, saying they recently voted to increase the state’s minimum wage, and that phase-in is still ongoing.

Cuomo, speaking at the Business Council of New York State's meeting a few weeks ago, proposed trading some business tax cuts in exchange for the minimum wage increase.

“Are there state tax cuts for business that can help offset the cost of the minimum wage?” Cuomo asked the group. “Because you could wind up with a win-win here.”

Flanagan says he’s in favor of more business tax cuts, but thinks they should not be linked to an agreement on further raising the minimum wage.

“It is very simple and very productive to have full blown,  separate discussion,” said Flanagan, who said he also wants to reexamine  workers compensation, unemployment insurance, and business regulations.

There have been persistent rumors of a special December session on the minimum wage, Flanagan says he would not favor that, and would rather deal with that and other issues in the regular session, which begins in January.

Lawmakers will also have to address an agreement between the state and the New York City to fund the MTA. The state will contribute $8.3 billion over the next five years.  Upstate lawmakers have called for similar spending on roads and bridges. Heastie says he’ll consider that.

“We will absolutely support it,” said Heastie. “This is a  large and diverse state and every part of the state it deserves its equity.”

Cuomo has talked about borrowing  the money to pay for the state’s share of the MTA funding. Flanagan says he is not in favor of that.

“Borrowing is not a good idea,” Flanagan said. “It should be pay as you go.”

The year 2016 will be an election year for all members of the legislature, and Senate Republicans, currently hold a slim majority. But Flanagan says he will try to keep that out of the legislative session, as much as possible.

“Between January and the end of session , people expect that we’re going to govern,” Flanagan said. “They don’t want histrionics, they don’t want hyperbole. They want results.”

He says the politics will come later.