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Deal reached on raising minimum wage in upstate to $12.50 in five years

ALBANY – Negotiators say they have struck a deal to raise the state’s minimum wage, though at a slower pace than what Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Democrats proposed.

The current $9 per hour rate for upstate employees will rise 70 cents a year until it reaches $12.50 in five years. At that point, there will be a “pause” to give the governor’s budget division and the state Labor Department time to assess the state’s economic condition to determine if the wage can keep rising, according to a Capitol source.

To get two New York City Senate Republicans to go along with the plan, the deal raises the minimum wage in the Big Apple to $15 in three years, but it would take four years to hit that level for employers with 10 or fewer workers.

The rate will go to $15 in the downstate suburbs over six years.

In a brief appearance with a handful of reporters Thursday afternoon outside his office, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said the terms of the minimum wage deal have changed, but he declined to offer specifics.

Officials cautioned the deal is not in print yet and Senate Republicans, whose members have raised the loudest warnings over the wage hike, are due to meet later today in a private session to discuss the wage and other remaining issues.

Gap Elimination Adjustment to end

Heastie, while speaking to reporters Thursday morning, did confirm what a state senator told The Buffalo News on Wednesday: that the overall state aid increase to about 700 public school districts will total about $1.5 billion. It includes the full elimination of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a state aid claw-back program that began about six years ago.

Heastie revealed a snag in the talks that, as of midday, was still unresolved. Education insiders say Cuomo has been trying to keep about 70 schools, including some in the Buffalo area, on a state receivership list of “failing” schools. In January, administrators at those schools thought they had met the criteria to come off the failing schools list. Heastie called the matter the “biggest issue outstanding” for Assembly Democrats.

Several budget bills were introduced Wednesday night, including money for various transportation, economic development and health programs.

Among the bills introduced were additional financial commitments to snowmobile trail maintenance and a capital funding program for projects that replace “inefficient and outdated” health care facilities.

The budget bills also include additional funding for communities affected by the closure of electric power generating stations, such as the recently shuttered Huntley power station in the Town of Tonawanda.

One of the bills provides funding for “climate smart community projects,” which can include efforts for anything from flood mitigation to clean vehicle projects.

The Huntley funding is expected to provide a state-funded financial lift to the Town of Tonawanda, as well as the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School district, which is looking at a loss of $6 million in tax revenues by the March 1 closing of the NRG Energy-owned plan on River Road.

The Assembly recently approved a $50 million fund that could be tapped to deal with plant closings like Huntley. The Cuomo administration has targeted coal power plants for closure. The final deal appears to lower the fund to $30 million available for various communities, including those around the Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant in central New York.

Budget debate could go late

Major budget bills have not yet been made public. Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats, who are in the political minority and have been cut out of any of the budget talks, say it will take at least six hours once the major bills are released for their staff to analyze them and then for lawmakers to consider their questions and positions for later floor debates. The situation has left lawmakers in both parties predicting a budget debate that could drag on until Friday in both houses.

The budget is due by midnight Thursday.

Asked if an on-time budget is still possible, Heastie said, “That’s in the eye of the beholder.”