By JON CAMPBELL and AARON SCHOLDER
ALBANY -- The varied opinions on the merits of raising the state's minimum wage were on full display Wednesday, with business groups and Senate Democrats hosting separate events focused on the hourly rate.
The Democrat-led Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate have been at odds over a bill to increase the wage from $7.25 to $8.50 and then tie future increases to the rate of inflation.
Lobbying groups representing private-sector businesses held their annual "Small Business Day" effort at the Capitol on Wednesday, featuring a speech from Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County -- a critic of increasing the rate.
Skelos told reporters that he believes raising the minimum wage would result in job loss and increased costs for employers. He said the state should instead focus on offering tax incentives to small businesses.
"Our focus should be on creating jobs, not potentially killing jobs," he said.
Skelos said the Senate will eventually vote on a package of Republican-backed tax credits for small businesses, but he doesn't see the minimum wage bill as a part of that.
"There are no discussions on it, and my position hasn't changed," he said. "I believe it's a job killer."
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats held a forum of their own on the wage, where Senate Majority Leader John Sampson, D-Manhattan, said an increase is vital to low-income workers' ability to maintain a standard of living.
"It's about justice, making sure that we give the dignity and the quality of life that those employees deserve," he said. "Because the more you take care of your employees, your employees will take care of your business."
The bill has been made a priority by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who first raised the idea in a speech prior to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's State of the State address in January. Cuomo hasn't taken a position on the bill, saying he would like a find a compromise.
Silver contends that the increased wage would be an "instant economic stimulus" because employees would spend more money at other businesses.
"I think there's a moral obligation at this point to do the minimum wage," he said. "People who work a full week should not go home poor. Raising the minimum wage will get them just above the poverty level."
Business groups, however, made clear Wednesday that they disagree.
Mike Durant, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said employers would have to cut costs in order to deal with a minimum-wage increase, which would lead to layoffs.
"Small business owners in this state are struggling," he said. "A 17 percent increase in wages will have an impact on the cost structure, put a lot of pressure on their business, increase worker's comp, increase social security and increase health costs."
At least one business group -- the state Retail Council -- has indicated it would be open to a compromise, so long as the minimum wage is not tied to inflation and ramps up gradually over a period of multiple years.
David Levine, CEO of the liberal New York City-based American Sustainable Business Council, said in testimony at the Senate Democrats' forum that he is supportive of increasing the rate.
"For us, a higher minimum wage makes good business sense," he said. "It puts money back in the hands of New Yorkers who put it right back into our businesses here locally."
GANNETT ALBANY / WGRZ