ALBANY — Legislators on Wednesday began privately discussing a new way to increase the state's minimum wage after Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the long-blocked effort a big boost in his proposed budget.
Cuomo on Tuesday proposed to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.75. He didn't, however, include a provision from the Assembly's proposal that would index the wage to inflation to create automatic increases. That worried advocates for the working poor who say the buying power of a new minimum wage would quickly erode without indexing.
A day after the Democratic governor's budget presentation, closed-door talks with legislators included an alternative to automatic inflationary increases that would more likely gain the critical support of the 31-member Senate Republican conference.
The proposal would set specific minimum wage levels to be enacted in coming years. That could begin with the $8.75 minimum wage that Cuomo proposes for July 1 or with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's proposal of $8.50 an hour this year and building to Cuomo's level. It could be linked with business tax breaks that Senate Republicans have long sought.
Michael Kink of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, which is made up of labor and progressive groups, is among the advocates, legislators and state officials who say the latest proposal is gaining attention. Kink and the officials had no comment on the private proposal, but Kink is heartened by Cuomo's inclusion of a wage increase in his 2013-14 budget proposal.
"The governor has demonstrated how serious he is about getting this done," Kink said Wednesday. "Putting it in the budget is a big deal. It puts it on the front burner for the Legislature."
Regular increases would no longer make the minimum wage a perennial political football, said Bill Lipton of the progressive Working Families Party.
Business groups including the state Business Council and Unshackle Upstate still oppose a minimum wage increase as New York continues its economic recovery. They said an increase could force employers to cut jobs. But Unshackle Upstate is open to discussion.
"Without measures in place to offset the added costs, this hike will be detrimental to our business climate and taxpayers' wallets," said the group's Brian Sampson.
Some employers support the measure.
"It probably will cost us a little more in the ripple effect, but I think it's the right thing to do," said David Bolotsky, CEO of UncommonGoods in Brooklyn, an online and catalog gift business with 100 workers making more than minimum wage. "If we pay people more, then there will be more people moving above the threshold of public assistance and that saves taxpayers money."
The National Employment Law Project that fights for a living wage said 747,000 New Yorkers would benefit from the higher minimum wage if it was raised to $8.75 an hour. An additional 813,000 earning just over that wage would also like see a bump, the group said, citing wage hikes after previous minimum wage increases.
"The current minimum wage is unlivable. It's only $14,616 (annually)," Cuomo said in his State of the State speech this month. Gasoline, electricity, auto insurance, food, childcare and housing typically cost a minimum of $35,000, he said.
"It does not add up," Cuomo said. "It's the right thing to do. It's the fair thing to do. It is long overdue."
The measure strongly supported in the Assembly will be decided in the Senate.
"I think it's positive that there's no automatic cost of living," said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, whose conference had previously opposed raising the wage as a job killer. "We're going to look at business tax credits and things that we can do to help small businesses."
His co-leader, Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeffrey Klein, continues to support the measure.
"Doing so will put more money in the pockets of working class families while stimulating spending and creating thousands of local jobs," Klein said.