Palmer: Look for substance of minimum wage and campaign finance bills in Albany
An unprecedented new governing coalition is set to run the State Senate. Five Democrats have split from their colleagues to join with the Republicans, who otherwise would be in the minority. Their pitch to the voters who elected them: Don't worry; we're now better positioned to advance a popular, progressive agenda. But there may be reason to worry anyway.
The leader of the Independent Democratic Caucus, Sen. Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), says he fully expects the Senate to pass a minimum wage bill and serious campaign finance reform. That sounds great, and efforts by anyone from any party to make that happen should be supported. But getting something done is different from getting something meaningful done. You can make small changes and say you've "done" campaign finance reform. But, really, should anyone expect less than the kind of public matching fund system New York City has had for two decades?
The worry among those who care about the details of public policy is that deals will be made on progressive issues, but the actual legislation will be weak. That's not an unreasonable fear; the IDC is now coalescing with elected officials who have opposed public funding of elections and a minimum wage increase. But unless the public gets the meat of the progressive policies they're being promised, elected officials can't be allowed to claim victory.
On elections, providing public matching funds to multiply the impact of small donations is the single best way to lessen the corrupting influence of big money in Albany. Instead of candidates raising large contributions from corporate special interests and wealthy donors (who later come knocking for a return on that investment), public funding of elections allows them to run for office with small donations from people in their communities.
Not surprisingly, most New Yorkers like the idea. A Siena poll found over 70 percent support among each of the Republican, Democratic and independent voter cohorts surveyed. The IDC co-sponsored this progressive Fair Elections legislation last year. Yet, since the power-sharing deal was announced early last week, some members of the IDC are already equivocating.
A minimum wage increase is another no-brainer with widespread public support. Separate Siena and Quinnipiac polls show a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independent voters in favor. No New Yorker should be forced to survive on poverty wages; the state's current minimum, $7.25 an hour, yields an annual income of just around $15,000.
The way to truly lift families out of poverty is to tie the minimum wage to the rising cost of living. Every year, prices go up on basic goods, from rent to gas to food, but the minimum wage has stayed the same since it was changed by federal law in 2009. Indexing the wage to inflation is the critical solution, but when the Republicans ran the Senate last session they held up such a bill.
Many assumed a Democratic majority would be able to deliver this progressive victory in 2013. The IDC and their Republican colleagues claim to be more functional than a Democratic majority would be. Can they deliver?
Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the current majority leader, who will soon share power with Klein, has already made statements to dampen expectations on these progressive bills. Thankfully, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pushed back.
All eyes are on this new governing model and its architects; everyone questions whether it will work. The IDC will be under pressure to show results, as will the governor, who promises to "remake New York into the progressive capital of the nation." It's fair to reserve judgment until we see outcomes.
Cuomo released a litmus test last week, noting that his public support, or lack thereof, would be based on 10 policies, including minimum wage and campaign finance reform. He should consider adopting a more detailed filter for the specifics of the legislation. He could start with these two: Minimum wage must include indexing to inflation, and campaign finance reform must include public funding of elections.
The governor and this new Senate coalition should be judged not on whether an issue is taken up -- or even passed -- but on what has passed, and how well those policies will address New York's problems.
Dave Palmer is executive director of the Center for Working Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank focused on policies to benefit low-income and working people.