The acid test for the new power-sharing arrangement between Republicans and a breakaway faction of Democrats in the state Senate may be a vote to raise the minimum wage.
In May, then-Majority Leader Dean Skelos blocked consideration of an Assembly-passed bill that would have raised the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour and indexed it to inflation. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, called it a job killer and that was that.
Fast-forward to today. Skelos is still the boss of Senate Republicans. After eking out a close race, Democrats hold the majority in the chamber -- but they don't have control. The five-member Independent Democratic Conference has allied itself with Senate Republicans in what Skelos and IDC leader Jeffrey Klein, D-Bronx, are calling a "coalition government." Skelos and Klein will share leadership.
Like a lot of New Yorkers, we're still not quite sure what to make of the IDC's move. Is it a naked power grab? Is it a betrayal of Democratic Party ideals? Is it a recognition that voters are sick of party labels?
The IDC's members -- Klein, David Valesky of Oneida, David Carlucci of Orange County, Diane Savino of Staten Island and Malcolm Smith of Queens -- insist this kind of power-sharing is how you end gridlock. Valesky said IDC members have a greater level of trust with the Republicans over the current Senate Democratic leadership. The IDC believes it will be able to get a progressive agenda onto the floor for votes, and the laws that result will be better for the bipartisanship.
Some mainline Democrats in the Senate are wary of a Republican leadership that has more often stood in the way of progressive legislation, including a minimum wage increase. They harrumph that IDC members are likely to reap rewards from the Republicans, including committee chairmanships.
Cuomo is staying above the fray. The governor said rather than contend with shifting political labels, he would grant or withhold his support based on how legislators deal with his 10-point agenda. Campaign finance reform is No. 2 on Cuomo's hit parade. Raising the minimum wage is No. 3.
There should be little argument that the minimum wage needs to rise. It hasn't gone up since 2009, but the cost of living most certainly has. The Fiscal Policy Institute (PDF) estimates there are 880,000 New Yorkers who earned less than $8.50 an hour as of last year. A full-time job paying $7.25 an hour puts a family of three at 82 percent of the poverty line and has two-thirds of the purchasing power of a minimum-wage worker in 1970, FPI said.
A minimum wage hike would put more money in the pockets of people who will spend it, stimulating the state economy. As for the notion that raising the minimum wage will kill jobs, FPI cites groundbreaking research by economists who looked at neighboring counties across state lines with differing minimum wages. They found that higher minimum wages did not reduce employment.
Skelos is not prepared to say whether he would support a minimum wage increase. Sounds as if the IDC has some convincing to do.
-- The Syracuse Post-Standard