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Obama's Minimum-Wage Push Changes NY Debate

5:10 PM, Feb 14, 2013   |    comments
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By Jon Campbell

Albany Bureau

ALBANY, NY--  President Obama's new push to increase the national minimum wage spurred Assembly Democrats to tweak their state-level plan on Thursday, while the top Senate Republican signaled he wants to wait for Congress to act before moving forward in New York.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, on Thursday changed his bill to mirror the proposal laid out by Obama in his State of the Union on Tuesday. Silver's plan would increase New York's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 starting in 2014, while tying future increases to the rate of inflation; he had previously sought a jump to $8.50.

"I am heartened by (Obama's) rousing endorsement to raise the wage and tie it to the cost of living," Silver said in a statement. "However, New York cannot wait while Washington weighs the pros and cons of a federal shift in the minimum wage. We must act now."

State lawmakers have debated the merits of increasing the minimum hourly rate since Silver laid out his original plan 13 months ago. The debate gained new life in January when Cuomo proposed hiking the wage to $8.75 starting in July, and again when Obama pledged his support for a federal increase this week. Obama wants to increase the minimum wage to $9 by the end of 2015.

Obama's push may, in some ways, complicate things for those pushing for a state-level increase. A spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos -- who has expressed concern about a minimum-wage hike's impact on business but has hinted at a possible compromise -- said he would prefer to give time for Congress to move first.

"In light of President Obama's proposal and our intention to keep New York businesses from being put at a competitive disadvantage, it may be best to wait and see what the federal government does before the state acts," Scott Reif, the spokesman, said in a statement.

Cuomo, a Democrat, said he would watch how Congress reacts to Obama's plan. But the governor is still pursuing a New York bill in his proposed budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which begins April 1.

"Do I think a federal minimum wage law makes sense? 100 percent," Cuomo told reporters Wednesday in Queens. "And I think it would be the best way to do this so New York doesn't have to worry about compatibility with other states and a competitive disadvantage."

If Congress doesn't "proceed quickly," then "state reform is appropriate," Cuomo said.

State lawmakers last increased New York's minimum wage in 2004, when they agreed to stagger a bump from $5.15 to $7.15 over the following three years. The federal rate was increased to $7.25 in 2009, which forced the state rate up by a dime.

No fewer than four state bills have been introduced this year to change the wage. Silver's amended proposal would increase it to $9 an hour in 2014 and would require the state to adjust for inflation each year after that.

The cost-of-living adjustments have garnered the most opposition from Republicans and business lobbyists, who said employers would be hard pressed to afford the increases.

Silver's new plan drew renewed criticism from a number of business groups.

"Make no mistake about this: President Obama's plan has no chance to pass the Congress," Mike Durant, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement. "So what Speaker Silver is proposing would put New York in a terribly uncompetitive position. We would immediately become an outlier in the country and a place for small businesses to avoid."

While Democrats have a 2-to-1 majority in the Assembly, the GOP shares control of the Senate with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, led by Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx. Klein this week reiterated his support for a wage hike this year and said he was open to compromise when it comes to linking future increases the rate to inflation.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said allowing for automatic increases would keep the issue from becoming politicized in the state Legislature.

"I would like to see the indexing because I think it helps us not only to be where we ought to be now, but we don't have to continue to revisit this issue," she said Thursday on "The Capitol Pressroom," a public radio program.

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