Minimum wage hike a hot-button issue

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) talks to reporters

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) talks to reporters after a news conference at the Capitol in Albany. (May 15, 2012). (Credit: AP )

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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Economic tension -- as visceral as war and sex -- takes the spotlight in the current drama over the state's minimum wage law.

Fairness, justice and equity become the rhetorical packaging of choice for those who support raising the rate from the current $7.25 per hour. "Nobody who works a full 35-hour week, week after week, month after month, should be poor," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said earlier this month as his house, voting along party lines, approved a raise to $8.50 per hour next year, plus future indexing to inflation.

But the GOP-controlled State Senate has put this proposal in a different kind of rhetorical box -- the one labeled "job-killing" and "excessive regulation of private enterprise." Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said recently: "Every single small-business person that I've had the opportunity to meet with and talk to said that they would have to lay off people because of these additional costs." Skelos said tax credits could better spur job creation.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, perhaps managing expectations, has said the measure is thus likely to fizzle. Silver, who pushed the wage bill as a top priority this session, refused to concur, saying public pressure could still force the Senate's hand. Skelos has since dug in as opposed. Thursday, as lobbying went on, one group composed of dozens of business owners and executives declared support for a higher minimum rate.

Also this week, the comptroller's office in New York City released a report on income inequality that echoed other analyses, saying: "National income tax data show definitively that the nation's income distribution has been getting more unequal for at least the past three decades, with the top 1 percent capturing more of the national income and the rest, and especially the bottom 50 percent, less."

Hiking the minimum wage is nowhere near as earthshaking or as radical as all the emotional sloganeering would suggest. For perspective: New York currently sits in the fat part of the national curve, as one chart on the U.S. Department of Labor Web site shows.

Federal minimum-wage is now $7.25 per hour -- as is New York's. The same goes for 22 other states, including Texas and Missouri.

Florida mandates $7.67, Illinois $8.25, and California $8, with additional provisions involving overtime. They are among 18 states that set rates higher than the federal government; of them, 10 have rates linked to the consumer price index. The highest is Washington state, where minimum wage is $9.04 per hour.

Like New York, neighboring New Jersey and Pennsylvania set the rate at $7.25, but Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont are at $8.25, $8 and $8.46 respectively.

Four states in all set a minimum below $7.25; five set none. But the Labor Department notes: "Where federal and state law have different minimum wage rates, the higher standard applies."

President George W. Bush signed the last federal increase in 2007.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, bane of many "Occupy" protesters, backed an increase in January. "The genius of the free market is not always perfect," said the self-made billionaire.