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Potential framework deal on minimum wage decried by supporters and opponents

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been trying to rally support for months for raising the minimum wage.

Supporters and opponents of a $15 minimum wage in New York are blasting reports that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers have reached a compromise that could stretch out the phase in period, and exempt farmers from the higher pay requirements.  

With the March 31 deadline looming, and the Easter holiday in between, Cuomo and the Senate and Assembly are trying to negotiate a compromise on the governor’s proposal to phase in a $15 minimum wage for New York state.

Word spread of a possible deal to stretch out the phase in to $15 to up to nine years for upstate regions. Backers of the governor’s plan for a five-year phase in are dismayed.

Ron Deutsch is with Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank that received partial funding from the governor’s own campaign to raise the minimum wage, which is named after his father -- the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

“The rumor mill is flying right now,” said Deutsch, who said his group would prefer a six-year phase-in period.

The group Citizen Action said a longer phase in would “condemn upstate to poverty.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters earlier in the week that he’s against a lengthy stretch out of the minimum wage increase, saying he doesn’t want a deal where “none of us will be here by the time it gets to $15."

“We’re not going to accept a minimum wage proposal that would be an insult to our principles,” Heastie said.

Senate Republicans are concerned that businesses, particularly smaller employers, won’t be able to afford what would amount to a 2/3 increase in pay for workers, from the current $9 an hour to $15, in just six years.   

Senate Leader John Flanagan said discussions over the minimum wage also include cutting business regulations and more tax cuts, and mitigating high costs for workers compensation and unemployment insurance.

“What’s the right way to approach these things, and with some type of balance,” Flanagan asked. “Clearly we have differences that I think at the end of the day will be resolved.”

Flanagan said a lower wage rate than $15 for parts of upstate and even Long Island is also under discussion.

The Business Council of New York State, which is against the minimum wage increase, issued a last minute plea to Cuomo and lawmakers as budget deals are struck , saying “first, do not harm.” The council’s Zack Hutchins said the $15 an hour phase-in amounts to an over $15 billion tax on the state’s employers.   

“We’re not talking about larger corporations here,” Hutchins said. “We’re talking about the pizza shop around the corner that is already pinching pennies in order to survive.”

Farmers have joined with the business groups to oppose the minimum wage increase.

But Cuomo offered a carve out from the $15 minimum wage for farmers, though he provided no details.

“There are special conditions on farms, we understand that,” Cuomo said after an event in Niagara Falls. “And. we’re putting together a special package for farmers because they pose a unique problem.”

The New York State Farm Bureau rejected the idea, though, saying if farmers were allowed to pay a lower wage, they would still be hurt by competition with other industries who under a new law would be paying their workers more money.

There’s also the question of how a nine-year phase in of the minimum wage would mesh with an already scheduled minimum wage increase for fast food workers. A wage board controlled by Cuomo approved a $15 minimum wage by 2018 for New York City and 2021 for the rest of the state.  

Deutsch, with Fiscal Policy Institute, said that leads to another question.

“Does the legislature have the ability to supersede what was done through the wage board, or not,” Deutsch asked.

Senate Republicans want to outlaw the wage boards, which they say Cuomo used to get around their objections to raising the minimum wage. Assembly Democrats have so far not publicly agreed.

Politically it would be difficult to take away benefits already promised to the fast food workers, supporters say.

There’s also another so far unresolved issue concerning the minimum wage. Not for profit groups that contract with New York to provide services like home health care and aid to the disabled say Medicaid payments from the state need to rise if they are ever to afford the minimum wage increase. Cuomo has said there’s no precedence for that.

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.