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New York State: The New Oklahoma?

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ANDREW CUOMO
ASSOCIATED PRESS
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When Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma signed a law this week banning cities in her state from enacting higher local minimum wages, there was some deserved head-scratching and collective groaning. At a time when cities and states are working to address economic inequality and fight poverty by passing minimum wage increases, why would a state hamstring its cities from setting a higher minimum wage?

It's a question that workers and advocates are asking in New York as well.

Because when it comes to the ability of localities to set a higher minimum wage, New York -- a supposed bastion of progressiveness -- is just as bad as Oklahoma now is.

For more than 50 years, New York has prevented its cities and counties from enacting a minimum wage above the state's floor, which is currently just $8 an hour, or $16,000 a year. This means that high cost cities and counties can't enact a higher minimum wage than areas where the cost of living is markedly less.

This makes absolutely no sense. New York has the highest level of income inequality in the nation, with more than 3 million New Yorkers -- 37 percent of the state's entire workforce -- earning less than $15 an hour.

Raising the wage floor is the most effective way to boost pay broadly across New York's low-wage workforce and address the corrosive income inequality and depressed consumer spending contributing to the tepidness of our economic recovery. With perhaps the greatest variation in costs of living of any state in the nation, giving localities in New York the ability to set a minimum wage that better reflects living costs is key to this effort.

By denying localities to raise their minimum wages, New York is at odds with states like California, Maryland and New Mexico, where cities and counties have enacted higher local minimum wages and have found that they boosted pay and reduced poverty with zero evidence of slowed job growth or business relocations.

In fact, after San Francisco enacted a citywide minimum wage in 2003 (currently $10.74 an hour), the city's employment grew by more than 5 percent even as nearby counties that had not passed a higher minimum wage experienced job losses.

And New York is being left out of a growing national movement on the city level to raise wages, close the income gap, and help boost the consumer spending that drives our economy.

Powered by working organizing in fast food, retail and other low-wage industries, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago will soon vote on whether to raise their cities' minimum wages to $15 an hour (in Chicago's case, for large employers). Other cities, including Washington D.C., Oakland, San Diego, Portland ME, and Las Cruces NM, will also vote on significant minimum wage increases this year.

These higher local wages also fuel momentum for statewide increases, as was the case in California, New Mexico, and most recently Maryland -- which just passed a state minimum wage increase months after two Maryland counties and neighboring Washington, D.C. enacted minimum wages of $11.50 an hour. In Washington State, the city of SeaTac's enactment of a $15 minimum wage for airport related jobs last year and Seattle's consideration of a $15 city minimum wage has prompted lawmakers to debate raising that state's minimum wage -- already the highest in the country -- even further.

In New York the state legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo have the chance give the millions of New Yorkers who work hard the ability to make a living from work, no matter which part of the state they live in. There's a bill in Albany, S6516/A9036, that would do just that by allowing localities in New York to enact a higher local wage.

For all the lip service politicians give to localities being able to decide their own destiny, when it comes to something that puts the needs of ordinary Americans ahead of the greed of corporate America, the silence can be deafening. Here's a chance for New York's legislature and Governor Cuomo to speak up.

Tsedeye Gebreselassie is a Staff Attorney at the National Employment Law Project, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers. For more about NELP, visitwww.nelp.org or www.raisetheminimumwage.org