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$15 minimum wage passage linked to Senate election on Long Island

ALBANY – If the Legislature next week passes legislation raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, supporters might do what often happens here and name the bill after someone important to their victory.

Perhaps “Dean’s Law.”

An increase in the minimum wage would not be possible at this time had former Senate Leader Dean Skelos not been ousted from office in December following his conviction on federal corruption charges.

Why?

The special election to fill his Nassau County seat is scheduled for April 19, less than three weeks after the state budget’s expected adoption next week. And nervous Senate Republicans are desperate to keep that seat in GOP hands.

The governor and a politically potent union are largely on the sidelines for that special election, but that could change if the budget does include the $15 minimum wage.

Both sides in the debate agree that it has given backers of the minimum wage hike a canyon-wide opening to prod Republicans into doing something many of their closest business backers don’t want.

“The timing of (the special election), a couple weeks right after the budget, has always been something hanging over the entire budget process. … It has put the Senate Republican conference in a box. We all know it’s a very thin majority,” said Michael Durant, state director of the National Federal of Independent Business, which has been fighting against the wage hike on behalf of its small business members.

“There’s no question the political reality on Long Island is forcing the Republicans to pay attention to the needs of working families across the state,” said Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat and minimum wage-increase supporter.

Who determined the date for the special election?

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

And he has tied himself to the $15 per hour minimum wage, as he continues his march to the political left.

If the wage hike does go through, Senate Republicans are banking on several political giants, including Cuomo, walking away from getting heavily involved in helping the Democratic candidate in the Senate 9th District.

Cuomo has endorsed Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat Assemblyman from Long Island, over the Republican candidate, Christopher McGrath. And the state Democratic Party has spent some money on the race.

But Democrats and Republicans know Cuomo could do far more if he wanted to push the seat from GOP to Democratic ownership.

Another major factor is 1199/SEIU, a health care workers union, which also has pushed for passage of the minimum wage hike. Big and politically potent with money and campaign workers, 1199/SEIU could pump millions of dollars into the Senate 9th – if it wanted to.

Might Cuomo and SEIU keep from getting engaged in the Senate special election if the Senate Republicans OK the minimum wage hike?

“I certainly think so. We’ve seen this is a major national priority for SEIU,” said a person who is directly involved in the minimum wage campaign.

The union “has considerable resources to bring on a race like this. There would be much, much less of a reason for them to drop a significant amount of money (on the Senate 9th race), which could be a difference maker if the minimum wage passes,” the person said.

Polls have shown strong support for a wage hike, though with sharp regional differences.

A Siena College poll last month found 65 percent of New Yorkers back a wage increase to $15.

In upstate, support was at 52 percent, downstate suburbs 60 percent and in New York City, 80 percent.

Another Siena poll this month found the Senate 9th District contest to be a dead heat.

“Senate Republicans can read the polls as well as anyone else and the minimum wage has broad, popular support,” said Ronald Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, one of the pro-wage hike groups.

Deutsch said the special election next month and the November elections are “forcing the hands” of the Senate GOP to act on the minimum wage.

With private polls showing support for the minimum wage above 50 percent in the Senate 9th District, according to sources on Friday, Deutsch said the GOP would hand the Democratic candidate an easy issue if the wage is not part of the budget.

“They are holding onto a very, very slim majority, so obviously it’s a big concern,” he said. “Does politics trump policy at this time because of that? That’s a possibility.”

Business interests opposing the minimum wage hike say they understand the Senate GOP’s political dilemma, but that doesn’t help companies facing higher labor costs and the uncertainty associated with Cuomo’s proposal for paid family leave that is also on the budget table.

“I think the Senate Republicans are stuck between a rock and a rock, but you’re talking about the most expansive paid leave and the highest minimum wage in the country,” Durant said. “So how do we sell that” to the business group’s members?

Cuomo loyalists who back the minimum wage and the governor have been trying to drive home the point against one Senate Republican, John DeFrancisco of the Syracuse area, for opposing the wage plan. Cuomo is attacking him on social media and in advertising. He did not return a call for comment.

Republicans worry those attacks can easily be shifted to the Republican candidate in the Senate 9th if nothing happens on the minimum wage in the budget.

“I think looking at the reaction labor has had toward DeFrancisco makes them wonder if that can happen to a member or candidate in a race that doesn’t have the heft that DeFrancisco has,” Durant said of the veteran senator from Onondaga County.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com