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Senate Republicans signal willingness to raise minimum wage, but must hold fast on their conditions

The minimum wage needs to increase, but doing so will require careful calibration, and that is what state lawmakers must focus on as they consider the governor’s proposal for a gradual but still dramatic change.

New York is already saddled with a reputation as one of the nation’s most business-unfriendly states. No one wants to drive potential employers to the Pennsylvania line – or even farther away – but subsidizing big businesses that hire low-wage workers who then qualify for public benefits isn’t the answer. Taxpayers in a high-tax state deserve better than that.

Albany leaders will have to strike a careful balance.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been a strong advocate for an increase in the state’s minimum wage, previously signing legislation raising the bar to its current $9.

Without involving the State Legislature, he instituted a wage increase to $15 for all fast-food workers by December 31, 2018, in New York City and July 1, 2021, for the rest of the state. He also announced that the State University of New York will raise the minimum wage for more than 28,000 employees, mirroring the plan for fast-food workers. He did the same for all state employees, affecting about 10,000 workers.

His latest proposal would lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour for workers across the state by 2021.

Senate Republicans were none too happy about the increase for fast-food workers – though they had given up that authority through creation of a wage board that did the work. Business interest groups were similarly displeased. Now, in typical state budget negotiations, or horse trading, GOP senators have said they could live with an increase in the minimum wage, but only under certain conditions. This week, they presented their terms, which also include the possibility of extending the effective date for the $15 rate to beyond 2021.

It is not surprising that Senate Republicans are coming around to Cuomo’s wish. They control the chamber by a razor-thin margin and they don’t want to risk losing it in November’s elections. But that gives them some leverage.

Thus, they also want to lower workers’ compensation and unemployment expenses for business, provide tax breaks for small companies and exclude certain employers from the wage increase mandates. These conditions were offered by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan of Long Island, who said: “We’re not adverse to it but the details in this instance are extremely important.”

It is too early to tell whether these conditions would really provide the kind of relief small business owners would require. The concern has been focused on this group of “mom and pop” business owners who may not have the financial wherewithal to sustain a significant increase in the minimum wage.

It has always been more desirable to have any increase begin at the federal level, which is set at a paltry $7.25. Several states have been moving forward in the Fight for $15. California voters will decide on a $15 minimum wage, also effective by 2021.

News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious interviewed Flanagan, who indicated discussions over a wage hike “include the longer phase-in period and certain exemptions for agricultural operations and small business.”

The Senate should also insist on built-in “pauses” during the multiyear rollout of any wage increase. That would allow state officials to evaluate the impact of rising wages and determine whether to continue to march toward $15 an hour. They should also consider adding an exception for teenage and seasonal workers.

Raising the minimum wage is a worthy goal, but it needs to be accomplished in a way that helps workers without hurting business. That will be a delicate balancing act.