ALBANY -- This much is clear: Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers are discussing ways to reach a compromise on the governor's push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Far less clear, however, is what shape that compromise may take.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, acknowledged Wednesday that private talks with Assembly leaders on the minimum wage have been "fruitful" and focused on "a lot of different things," though he declined to get into specifics.
As New York's March 31 state budget deadline draws near, discussions have centered on how much and how quickly the state's current $9 minimum wage should increase in downstate New York -- where the costs of living is higher -- versus how high it would go in upstate. There is also talk of whether certain industries should be exempt from the increase or get state assistance to cover their increased costs.
And, as always during budget talks, there's potential for legislative horse trading: Senate Republicans want to remove the Cuomo administration's ability to raise the minimum wage for a specific industry, which it used to approve a major hike for fast-food workers last year.
"Clearly, we have differences that I think at the end of the day will be resolved in an amicable and timely fashion," Flanagan told reporters Wednesday. "So it would be probably a bit unwise to go into absolute specific details, but I am very comfortable saying that we have had many, many discussions not only with the (Assembly) speaker, but with our own conferences.”
Cuomo's $145 billion budget plan, which he first laid out in January, calls for a gradual hike in the state's minimum wage, which currently sits at $9 an hour. It would mirror the fast-food wage, which is set to gradually rise to $15 by the end of 2018 in New York City and July 2021 in the rest of the state.
In its own budget proposal, the Democrat-led Assembly passed a plan similar to Cuomo's, though Westchester County and Long Island would be subject to the New York City schedule and future increases would be automatically tied to the rate of inflation.
The Republican-led Senate, meanwhile, has shown resistance to a wage hike, as have various business organizations and farm represents that oppose an increase outright.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats met behind closed doors to discuss how to get to a compromise, a day after Cuomo suggested he's open to a carve-out for the agriculture industry.
"It is premature for us to talk about what parts are there, what parts aren’t," said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx. "These discussions are ongoing.”
Heastie acknowledged looking at ways to help industries that would see increased expenses from a wage hike, but that have no control over their own revenues. Some non-profits who rely on state-set reimbursement rates, for example, have been seeking state funds to cover their increased costs.
Some lawmakers said there were some many variations of a minimum-wage hike being discussed, it was hard to know what could be in any final agreement. Some said there is talk of an exemption not only for farmers but also small businesses.
"There have been some conversations about carving out small businesses, but what size would the small businesses be?" Sen. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County, said. "I’ve heard as small as 25 (employees) and as large as 250. So it’s all over the place."
But O'Mara, who opposes a $15 minimum wage, said he was miffed that Cuomo has suggested imposing wage boards to raise the wage for certain sectors if the Legislature doesn't agree to his plan. Flanagan said Wednesday that Senate Republicans want to eliminate Cuomo's ability to do that, saying a legislative solution is preferable.
"The governor threatens to keep doing wage boards for every other sector of the economy," O'Mara said. "Either you do it, or he’s going to do it on his own. And that’s kind of what we’re up against."
The Senate's Democratic minority suggested Wednesday it may oppose a minimum-wage increase that is implemented too slowly.
"The Senate Democratic Conference would have a tough time supporting anything that goes slower or lower than what the Governor has publicly proposed in his budget," Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said in a statement.
Farmers, meanwhile, made clear Wednesday that they aren't interested in a carve-out from a wage hike.
In a statement, New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton, a Batavia dairy farmer, said exempting the agriculture industry would make it difficult to find quality workers, who would likely go to other industries to find higher-paying work.
Assemblyman Frank Skartados, D-Milton, Ulster County, said he supports excluding farmers from a $15 wage. Skartados has a small family farm.
"Farmers don’t have the luxury of setting their own prices when it comes to milk or other things," said Skartados. "And farmers provide a lot more services to their employees that are not found in other employments."
Albany Bureau Chief Joseph Spector contributed to this report.