In a State of the Union surprise last week, President Obama saw New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for a minimum wage hike and raised it a quarter — to $9 an hour nationally. It’s an excellent idea that, not surprisingly, has already been pronounced DOA by House Speaker John Boehner. So New York legislators shouldn’t be tempted to defer to the feds on this, even though the idea of a one-size-fits-all minimum is preferable to the patchwork quilt that now exists in 20 different states and the District of Columbia.
Assembly Democrats, who wasted little time endorsing Obama’s higher minimum as well as the idea of indexing future growth to the inflation rate, might want to take it a little easy here. Their Republican counterparts in the Senate just seem to be wrapping their heads around the governor’s proposal; trying to sweeten the pot before it gets formally considered might queer the deal.
Indeed, a spokesman for state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos signaled almost immediately after Obama’s speech Tuesday that he’d rather wait for the feds to tackle the issue. In principle, he’s right, because there would be less potential for damage to New York’s businesses if the minimum wage for all of New York’s neighbors went up simultaneously. (Currently, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont among New York’s abutters have higher-than-federal minimums, New Jersey and Pennsylvania don’t.)
But the political realities are such in Washington that there seems little chance of a higher federal minimum being adopted anytime soon.
Skelos and the Senate Republicans have to realize that, as do Assembly Democrats. So the latter need to avoid antagonizing the former. A $1.50 hike, from $7.25 to $8.75, is likely to be a tough enough sell; many businessmen are already lobbying against it, claiming it will weaken their balance sheets and lead to layoffs. (Never mind that the federal minimum hasn’t been raised in the last four years, and that even $9 an hour is below poverty level.)
In an ideal world, the minimum wage would be a true living wage, indexed to inflation so that as prices rose, workers at the lowest pay rungs could still subsist without government help, and the issue could be kept above the political fray. Unfortunately, the real world is another matter.