N.Y. governor bypasses legislature to boost wages – just like Obama?

Executive action has become a source of rancor on the national stage. At the state level, governors from both sides of the aisle have invoked executive powers to work around legislatures.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Gov. Andrew Cuomo listens during a labor rally announcing a plan to get a minimum $15 an hour wage hike for fast-food workers, Thursday, in New York. Governor Cuomo is proposing a plan to get a minimum wage hike for fast-food workers that doesn't require legislative approval. Cuomo says he told the state labor commissioner to put together a panel that will investigate and make recommendations on what the wage should be.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the fiscally-conservative Democrat who has long had a rocky relationship with the state’s many coalitions of progressives and liberals, invoked his executive powers Wednesday to begin a process to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers.

It was a bold and surprising move for the cautiously moderate governor, who decided to bypass the state legislature on an important matter of public policy – as well as put his personal stamp on income inequality and the fast food “Fight for $15” campaign, two high-profile and nationwide progressive causes.

For New York Republicans, however, the governor simply pulled an Obama, resorting to executive powers to finagle an end-around on a divided legislature. The state's minimum wage is already set to rise from $8.75 to $9 at the end of 2015. Republican opposition thwarted Governor Cuomo’s plans to raise it again this year, to $11.50 in New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in the state.

“Trying to govern by executive order is the same type of misguided approach that President Obama has proven to be ill advised and ineffective,” Assemblyman Brian Kolb, the minority leader, told The New York Times, referring to the president’s controversial executive orders on immigration last fall, which grants a reprieve from deportation to about 5 million illegal immigrants, mostly families with children living in the US.

While the legality of Obama’s actions on immigration are currently under review by a federal court, Cuomo’s authority to begin a process to implement a higher minimum wage is already long-established by state law.

Still, critics of the governor’s move on Wednesday maintain that such an important matter of fiscal policy should be left to the democratic process. And Obama’s bold unilateral actions during his presidency have highlighted executive orders as a source of partisan rancor.

“Personally, I’d much rather see this passed via ‘normal' channels, but both in Washington and Albany, the dysfunction in the legislatures has made it such that any agreement doesn't seem likely to happen,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “And so we do have executives trying to find these other means to implement certain policies.”

Last year, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), frustrated with the refusal of the GOP-led legislature to expand Medicaid under the Obamacare law, explored his own executive powers for months, seeking to expand the federally-funded program on his own. He eventually dropped the effort, however.

In February, conservative Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) used his executive powers to ban “fair share” union dues for nonmembers – an aggressive move in his battle against the state’s established progressive policies. The controversial executive order is now being challenged in state and federal courts.

Cuomo, however, invoked his statutory power to impanel a “Wage Board” to investigate whether the wages for workers in a certain industry “are sufficient to provide for the life and health of those workers.” In February, the state’s labor commission similarly raised the minimum wage for those who work for tips – and who generally received lower hourly wages – to $7.50 an hour.

“Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry,” Cuomo wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times, where he announced his controversial move to give fast-food workers a yet-to-be-determined raise.

Politically, the move was seen as shrewd by a number of observers. The New York State legislature is currently in disarray after federal prosecutors indicted the majority leaders of both houses, Democrat Assemblyman Sheldon Silver in January and Republican Sen. Dean Skelos on Monday.

The governor is asserting his power in the state at a time of weakness in the state legislature, many observers point out. But even more importantly, perhaps, Cuomo is also repairing his fraught relationship with the state’s progressive coalitions – for whom income inequality and the “Fight for $15” campaign remain top priorities nationwide, and which the public seem to generally support.

“The fact that savvy politicians like Governor Cuomo are answering their call confirms that raising wages is a winning political issue,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the New York City-based National Employment Law Project, in a statement.

“This will make it harder for other service-sector employers to pay poverty wages and should help pave the way for wage increases in these other industries as well,” she said.

Many business leaders joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing the governor’s legislative end-around and use of his executive authority to try to implement this state-wide policy.

“While the measure proposed by the governor is allowed under the Labor Law, it has rarely been used and we are concerned that it circumvents the legislature’s long established role in making wage policy in New York,” said Ken Pokalsky, vice president of The Business Council of New York State, in a statement. “It also raises concerns about other sectors being subject to non-legislative wage mandates.”

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