May 16, 2012

NY Assembly enlists public in minimum wage fight

Associated Press

ALBANY — Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Tuesday appealed for public pressure to force a vote that would raise the minimum wage, one of his top priorities but one that has defied a political resolution. Soon after, the Senate's Republican majority dug in deeper against the raise.

Each side claimed the high ground over whether to raise the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, from $7.25 now, for more than 1 million state residents. Silver called it a moral obligation to make sure hardworking people aren't poor, and he was backed Tuesday by a brief demonstration outside Senate offices.

Hours later, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said he sees a moral imperative to protect and grow jobs, and he said raising the minimum wage would cost workers more in taxes and lost social services.

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has said he supports the idea, is taking heat for not doing more to bring his Senate Republican allies into talks.

"We're very disappointed," said Mark Dunlea, executive director of Hunger Action Network and a leader in the progressive Green Party.

Dunlea said it was disappointing for advocates for the poor when Cuomo and legislative leaders took the issue out of budget bargaining, where Silver had more leverage. Dunlea also criticized Cuomo for not holding out for Senate support in a trade to accept the Senate majority's legislative redistricting map, which was criticized by good-government groups as twisted to protect majority power.

"He has absolutely failed to provide leadership," Dunlea said.

He said Democratic and Republican lawmakers also appear to have chosen to use the minimum wage as a way to mobilize each party's base for this fall's elections.

Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said the governor "supports raising the minimum wage, as we have made clear repeatedly."

"Unfortunately," he said, "we do not believe there will be an agreement this session."

On Monday, The Associated Press reported the months-old proposal was dead. Silver, the bill's sponsor, confirmed he hasn't had any talks with the Senate majority on the issue, not even on the provision to link future raises to the cost of living, which he said he'd be willing to negotiate. Last week, Cuomo didn't include the issue among a half-dozen items that had a chance of passing by the end of the session June 21.

Silver said the issue was about "a full day's pay for a full day's work."

"When push comes to shove, this is a moral issue," he said.

Silver cited industrialist Henry Ford's decision a century ago to raise wages to create a market for his cars and a stronger economy.

Myrna Capaldi, a single working mother of a teenager from Kingston, led two dozen demonstrators with the Workers Justice Center to Skelos' office. After a 25-minute wait, the bilingual family social services worker was happy to meet with Skelos' aide.

"Every dollar I earn is already spent before I get my paycheck," Capaldi said.

Silver is counting on voter pressure after Monday's Siena College poll found 78 percent of voters, including most Republicans and Conservatives, support an increase.

Skelos said Silver's bill won't reach the Senate floor. He said increasing the minimum wage would mean a full-time worker who sees his pay increase by up to $2,600 a year would pay an extra $2,000 in taxes while losing eligibility for food stamps and subsidized health care, a figure in some dispute depending on the wages earned.

Silver, however, reminded reporters that five weeks remain in the session for compromise. The Assembly passed its version Tuesday. Legislative leaders often take hard public negotiating positions against bills in Albany, only to compromise later. But Skelos said there is no discussion now or planned on minimum wage.

"Nobody should lose a job because someone else is going to make 50 cents more," Skelos said. "To me, the moral imperative is to have as many people working as possible."