By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - A deal in New York to raise the state's minimum wage could provide a playbook for Democrats in Congress who are working along the same lines nationally.
New York state lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo have agreed to increase the state's minimum wage to $9 an hour. The plan, which would phase in the increase over three years, is a small piece of a much bigger pending agreement involving a budget for the state's new fiscal year, which begins April 1.
The package includes a provision that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in New York City and higher tax rates for households with incomes above $1 million.
New York's proposed minimum wage - which would amount to $360 a week or $18,720 annually - is significant because Congress typically raises the federal minimum after a significant number of states raise their rates.
"State wages build momentum for raising the federal minimum wage,'' said Paul Sonn, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for the poor. "The federal increase is not going to happen immediately, so the state increases are all the more important.''
Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia have a minimum wage above the federal rate. Washington state has the highest, at $9.19 an hour.
Twenty-two states, including New York, use the federal rate. Five have no state minimum wage. In four, the minimum wage is lower than the federal rate, although the federal rate applies to most workers.
Congressional Democrats, who face an uphill battle in their effort to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, could attach their proposal to a must-pass bill or to tax legislation favored by Republicans.
That has been the minimum-wage strategy used in Congress over the past two decades.
The last increase in the federal minimum wage was inserted into a 2007 defense bill that included $4.8 billion in tax cuts for small businesses over 10 years.
During the Clinton administration, Congress included a minimum wage increase in the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996. That legislation increased annual contribution limits for 401(k) retirement savings plans and lowered the federal tax on luxury car sales.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Democrats will focus initially on enacting stand-alone legislation to increase the federal minimum wage, but passing an increase "could well'' require linking it to other legislation.
"I would tie this bill to any jobs bill through an amendment process or through a base bill,'' she said, expressing hope the measure will be treated as "a moral issue.''
"We want to reward work in this country,'' she said. "This country was based on rewarding work, and anyone who is working 40 hours a week should be able to provide for her kids.''
The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour provides a weekly income of $290, or $15,080 annually. That's barely above the federal poverty threshold of $15,510 for a family of two. For a family of three, it falls $4,450 below the poverty line of $19,530.
With Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans controlling the House, Senate Democrats are leading the effort to enact another increase in the federal minimum wage.
A Senate committee chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has held one hearing focusing on a proposal to index the minimum wage based on annual increases in consumer prices after the rate reaches $10.10 an hour.
A move to insert the proposal into legislation streamlining job training programs failed in the House on Friday. The measure was opposed by 233 lawmakers, including six Democrats.
Support for the measure is widespread among Democrats. There are 27 co-sponsors in the Senate and 135 in the House, all Democrats. Both New York senators are sponsors along with a dozen New York House members, including Reps. Eliot Engel of the Bronx, Louise Slaughter of Fairport and Brian Higgins of Buffalo.
States with a minimum wage above the federal minimum
Washington - $9.19 an hour
Oregon - $8.95
Vermont - $8.60
Connecticut - $8.25
District of Columbia - $8.25
Illinois - $8.25
Nevada - $8.25 ($7.25 if employer provides health insurance)
California - $8
Massachusetts - $8
Ohio - $7.85
Arizona - $7.80
Montana - $7.80
Florida - $7.79
Colorado - $7.78
Alaska - $7.75
Rhode Island - $7.75
Maine - $7.50
New Mexico - $7.50
Michigan - $7.40
Missouri - $7.35
Source: Labor Department
Gannett Washington Bureau