In last month’s State of the Union address, President Obama announced his support for an increase in the federal minimum wage, which currently stands at $7.25 an hour. An increase to $9 an hour, as the president proposed, would be a step up for millions of people working full time, yet living in conditions of poverty that, as the greatest economic superpower ever, we should find appalling.
Unfortunately, it’s not going to make it through the Congress — nothing does. It’s more likely that the shout-out was aimed at galvanizing state-level efforts.
New York’s effort, in particular, has been championed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who proposed an increase to $8.50 an hour last year and now wants it at $9, with indexing to inflation. This would give the poorest among us a leg up, and make it so that future political gamesmanship can’t come between people who work hard and earning a fair paycheck.
One would think this would be a no-brainer for our progressive state, where proposals like this are pretty popular. How popular? According to the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in January of this year, 80 percent of New Yorkers supported an increase in the minimum wage — including a whopping 61 percent of Republicans! Furthermore, no other demographic subgroup registered less than 70 percent support on the issue.
Sadly, that’s not translating into legislative support just yet. Our leaders are more interested in stalling than acting on a matter that would provide very real support to struggling New Yorkers.
Silver’s proposal last year died at the hands of Senate Republicans, and it could very well happen again. Because of the Independent Democratic Caucus — a group of five Democrats who handed control from their own party to the Republican minority late last year — the IDC’s leader, Jeffrey Klein, and GOP leader Dean Skelos both have to agree before bringing legislation to the floor.
To his credit, Klein and his caucus support an increase in the minimum wage. Skelos is not quite there yet. Since they both have to turn the key for this bill to go forward, all the power rests in Skelos’ hands.
Will he kill it again? The GOP leader’s previous objection had been that increasing the minimum wage would be a job killer. The truth is that most modern economic analyses suggest he is wrong: Any problems for employers who have to pay their employees a decent wage are generally offset by the increase in consumer spending driven by — you guessed it — those same folks having more money in their pockets. Over the last 20 years, the states that have instituted minimum wage increases have been the ones with slightly better job growth. At worst, there seems to be no palpable effect on job creation.
Fortunately, Skelos has appeared to shift from his previous position, saying that if it’s done right, he might be open to a minimum wage increase. This isn’t to say he’s made a substantive change just yet — he has now shifted to using the Obama proposal as reason to stall.
And, as you may have expected, Gov. Cuomo has, too.
On the Obama proposal in the State of the Union, Cuomo says: “It makes the discussion more complicated.” But if the Obama proposal makes things more complicated, then surely this quote by the governor does too: “Do I think a federal minimum wage law makes sense? One hundred percent. 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.”
Intentionally or not, Gov. Cuomo is amplifying the importance of the very thing he’s saying complicates his own efforts on the matter. Presumably, he realizes that nothing is going to happen on the federal level in regard to the minimum wage — virtually nothing happens on the federal level anymore, other than a lot of rhetoric. Basic politics suggests: If that rhetoric is constructive, you should seek inspiration and gain moral support from it. If it’s not constructive, you should ignore it.
But if you’d rather hedge your bets, you do what the governor is doing.
It’s time to cut the stalling. Though he’s providing virtually no leadership on the issue, if a bill makes its way to Cuomo’s desk, it’s hard to imagine he’ll veto it — which means all we’re waiting on now is Dean Skelos to evolve on the issue. A majority of the members in the chamber he controls have openly stated they’d vote for a hike. His partner in leading the Senate supports it. A vast majority of New Yorkers support it.
What are we waiting for?
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.