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Minimum wage game changed when NY lawmakers return

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Raising New York’s minimum wage appeared an almost sure thing going into this year, but now it is muddled by competing proposals and by political strategies crucial to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Republicans.

It all means an uncertain future for the issue that touches millions of New Yorkers directly and indirectly. Lawmakers come back Tuesday after vacation.

“The governor just doesn’t seem willing to bring his `A game’ to the minimum wage issue,” said Mark Dunlea of the Hunger Action Network, an advocate for the poor and working poor. “With more than 80 percent of the voters supporting a minimum wage hike, this is certainly a much easier issue for the governor to push through than same-sex marriage or gun control.”

President Obama has proposed a nationwide $9 minimum wage tied to inflation, and Cuomo told reporters that the federal level is “the best place to do a lot of these laws.”

The state’s current minimum wage matches the federal one — $7.25 an hour. Opponents fear raising it could kill jobs for the people the measure is intended to help.

“You could argue it’s less urgent for the state to do it, but I think you go down both tracks simultaneously ... on the off-chance that it doesn’t get passed,” Cuomo said.

Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos of Long Island said it’s a matter of fairness for employers, as well as workers.

“Since New York’s minimum wage is tied to the federal minimum wage, Senator Skelos agrees with the governor that it should be set at the federal level,” said Skelos spokesman Scott Reif.

“Our intention is to keep New York businesses from being put at a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “It may be best to wait and see what the federal government does.”

The leader of the traditional Democratic conference that would have to provide most of the 32 Senate votes needed to raise the minimum wage is ready.

“We have 27 votes to pass this at $9 an hour (and tied to inflation),” said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “Let’s do it.”

The Working Families Party said the danger in awaiting federal action is that the Republican Congress could stall or trim Obama’s proposal and steal New York’s momentum.

Last year, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver proposed an $8.50-per-hour wage, with further increases based on inflation. In January, Cuomo raised the ante to $8.75 an hour in an impassioned plea in his State of the State address, but without automatic raises based on inflation.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat, proposes a minimum wage of $11.15 with indexing for inflation.

He’s trying to counter the years of inaction that left the minimum wage the same since 2004, and he has the support of the Legislature’s Black, Hispanic and Asian Caucus. They note states with far lower costs of living, such as Washington, already set the minimum at $9.15 an hour, the highest in the nation, while high-cost New York City lags behind.

“The cost of living is going up and the chances of living are going down,” Parker said.

But business groups including Unshackle Upstate warn raising the wage could hurt New York’s slow and uneven economic recovery.

“We’ve made some real strides toward improving New York’s anti-business reputation,” said the group’s Brian Sampson. “A minimum wage increase at this time would be a huge step in the wrong direction for businesses. And the only direction they will have to go, the only true expense they can control, will be to reduce their labor costs.”

State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, influential with Senate Republicans, said last week that market forces should determine wages so employers aren’t stuck with political mandates that sap commerce.

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